Beautiful Beginning: Chapter 4


I could barely open my eyes the next morning.

Bright yellow sun filtered through the open balcony door, warming my skin where it cut across the bed. I could taste the salt in the air; hear the sound of the tide as it washed along the beach. I could feel the heat of Chloe’s body where it pressed against my side. Naked.

She mumbled something in her sleep, slipped a smooth leg up and over mine, and shifted closer. The sheets smelled faintly of her perfume and even more of her.

With a groan, I extricated myself from her grip and very carefully rolled her to her side. Swinging my feet to the floor, I stood, looking down at my very hard, very selfish dick. Really? I thought. Again? I’d gone to the bathroom on two separate occasions last night—both before and after Chloe’s little one-woman show—and still. Always the traitor.

Chloe thought I was brilliant for having us wait until Saturday, when in reality it was starting to feel like the worst idea I’d ever had. I felt anxious and on edge—aware of a persistent hum beneath my skin and a need for exertion—to fuck until I was too tired to stand or sit, too exhausted to do anything but fall into bed and pass out.

Under normal circumstances I’d have cut off my right hand before considering leaving a warm bed and naked Chloe. But these weren’t normal circumstances, and frankly, my right hand had proven invaluable the last few days.

I’d almost caved last night, and at this point, it would

be like surrendering to the enemy. I needed to get out of here.

I found my phone in the living room and typed a message to Max. I need to run. You in?

His response came less than a minute later. Definitely. I’ll grab Will and meet you at the main pool in 10?

See you then I typed back, and tossed my phone to the couch.

I’d have time to jerk off, clean up, and escape the room before Chloe was even awake.

Max had most definitely gotten laid. I watched him as he neared the pool, hair a mess and limbs loose and relaxed. It would be easy to hate this guy if I wasn’t so damn happy for him.

Okay, no. I still hate him a little.

“You look disgustingly pleased with yourself,” I said, dropping into a deck chair beneath a bright blue umbrella.

“And sadly, you don’t,” he said back with a smirk. “Your virginity giving you trouble?”

I sighed, rolled my neck, and felt the tension that seemed present in every single muscle. “Is it tomorrow yet?”

Max shook his head, laughing. “Almost.”

“Where’s Will?”

“With Hanna still, I think. He said to wait, that he’d be down in a few.” Max took a seat across from me, bent down to tighten the laces of his running shoes.

“This is good. There’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”

He squinted up at me. “What’s up?”

“Do you remember when Will hired that creepy clown to deliver a singing telegram on my birthday?” I asked, an involuntary shudder moving up my spine. This kind of thing had become the norm in the Will, Bennett & Max Show. After having accidentally hired a transvestite hooker for Will while we were all in Vegas, he’d retaliated by having a couple of goons pretend to bust us for card counting. It had only escalated from there. Chloe insisted it was only a matter of time before one of us ended up in the hospital or jail. My money was on jail.

Max groaned. “Fuck. I thought I’d finally erased that mental image. Thanks for bringing it back.”

I glanced back toward the hotel to make sure I didn’t see Will coming down yet. “I have some retribution in the works.”

“Okay . . .”

“Did you happen to meet Chloe’s aunts last night?”

“The ones that looked like a couple of hyenas circling a lame gazelle? Yes, lovely ladies.”

“I may be partly responsible for that,” I said, waiting for his reaction. He seemed completely unfazed.

“‘Partly,’ Ben?”

“Okay, completely.”

He shook his head, but was clearly amused. “You don’t think they’ll get their hopes up, do you?”

“I got the sense that they were just looking to have some fun. I sort of told them he liked experienced women and that he liked them in pairs. All of which is true, I might add.”

He raised a brow.

“Technically true,” I corrected. “I’m going to hell, aren’t I?”

“Did you give Hanna the heads-up?”

“I’m not a total dick, Max.” When he lifted his brows as if to say Oh really? I ignored him, continuing, “I may have suggested she play along. She agreed.”

“That’s it? She’s easier than I expected,” he said, already shaking his head in disbelief. What girlfriend would ever agree to such an evil albeit brilliant plan? Clearly, Hanna was a genius.

“It took a little reassurance that he’d escape unharmed, but yes, she did. I really like her, by the way.”

“Same,” he said with a quick nod.

“So what do you think? Should I call it off? I’ll be honest, I’m feeling a little dirty over this one. They’re Chloe’s aunts.”

We heard footsteps move across the deck and both looked up, seeing Will jogging toward us.

Max leaned in quickly and whispered, “Tell him and I’ll kill you.”

There were surfers scattered down the shore and a few runners passed us as we started away from the hotel.

“So what had you up so early?” Max asked from my right, keeping a steady pace with me. Will, the competitive runner, was about twenty feet in front of us, shouting insults and patronizingly encouraging remarks over his shoulder every few minutes.

“Just . . . everything,” I admitted. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so exhausted and so keyed up at the same time in my life. You probably don’t want to hear this, but I’m not sure whether I want to sleep for ten hours or fuck.”

Max gave me a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. “I know the feeling,” he said.

“Like hell you do,” I said back, looking over to him.

He fought a laugh. “Sorry, mate. I don’t mean to mock your pain, and this will most definitely fall into overshare territory . . . but I’ve never seen Sara like this before. She’s always been . . . How should I say this . . . ?” He scratched his jaw, thinking. “She’s always been eager. But pregnant Sara? Jesus, mate. I can barely keep up.”

I’d really have liked to shove Max into the pounding surf, but I had to admit it was a little endearing to see him so flustered and fumbling through his words. “That might be the most inarticulate thing I’ve ever heard you say.”

“Fucking right.”

“Really trying not to hate you,” I groaned.

“So, aside from the obvious,” Max said, meaningfully. “How are things?”

“The usual. My mother is texting me every half hour with whatever happens to be her worry of the moment. Chloe’s dad wouldn’t have the foggiest idea where he’s supposed to be at any given time without Julia assigned to Frederick Watch. Bull is waiting for Chloe to decide she wants one last fling. I’ll probably be checked into rehab by the end of the day.”

“And Chloe?” he asked.

“Chloe is Chloe,” I said. “She’s sexy and infuriating and constantly keeps me guessing. I thought I might strangle her last night but we talked. I think we’re finally on the same page.”

“Sounds great then,” he said. But it was too short, too flat, and I didn’t miss the way he kept his eyes trained on Will.

“What?” I asked, watching his expression.

“Nothing.”

“If you have something to say, Stella, say it.”

Will must have realized we weren’t behind him anymore because he’d doubled back. “What’s up?” he asked, using the hem of his shirt to wipe the sweat from his brow and looking back and forth between us, clearly confused.

“We’re talking about Plan Chastity,” Max explained.

“Oh, good,” Will said, turning to face me. “If I may, this sexbargo thing may be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“I—” I began.

“Agreed,” Max interrupted. “I get that it’s all a fucking game with you lot most of the time, but who flies to California to get married, rents a bloody suite on the beach, and then doesn’t bang the hell out of his hot fiancée?”

“Stupid.” Will nodded.

Max gave me a withering look. “Imbecilic.”

“Embarrassing to all men, if I’m being quite hon—”

“I don’t know, okay!” I yelled, my voicing booming down the beach. ”I know it makes no sense! At the time, it made sense. ‘Make it special,’ I thought. ‘Make the tension build,’ I thought. I wanted her to remember how fun it was to be pissed at me all day every day. I wanted her to remember that there really is only one man who can handle her and it’s me, goddamnit! Now, it seems like the worst idea in the history of bad ideas. But I’m committed. Do you see this tiny corner I’ve painted myself into? Do you?”

I gestured around me frantically until both of my friends were forced to give me slightly terrified nods.

“I threw down this gauntlet, I have to follow through. This is Chloe we are talking about. She already has her fist curled tightly around one of my testicles, at least let me keep the other one! If I fuck her before Saturday night she’s going to think she owns both balls and can wear them as fucking charms on a bracelet. She’ll expect me to thank her after she sucks my dick! She’ll think she’s letting me spank her! She’ll wear shoes to work that no one has any business wearing even in the bedroom!” I took a huge, gulping breath, lowering my voice, “And then. Then I will spend the rest of forever trying to convince her that she’s an ungrateful, pain in the ass, harpy shrew who really just needs to be tied to the bed and fucked until she’s thanking me for existing!”

I wiped my chin free of any spittle that may have escaped during my tirade and squeezed my eyes shut, chest heaving.

“You really need to get laid,” Will whispered in awe.

Max rested his enormous hand on my shoulder. “He’s right, mate. This is more serious than I thought.”

“Oh, shut the fuck up,” I hissed, shoving his hand away and starting to walk down the beach. “It may be my mistake but you’re all just as fucked. If Chloe wins this week you’re all toast. Every man in the world is toast and will suffer like no one has suffered before. I don’t like it—didn’t plan it—but those are the stakes we’re all now facing.”

Max shook his head, falling into step beside me. “It’s not just you who needs to get laid, Ben. Chloe hasn’t been herself this week, either. Maybe your strategy here is off.”

I slowed to a stop again. “What are you talking about? You saw her last night; she was being a royal pain in the ass. How is that ‘not herself’?”

“All this marriage business has definitely made you soft if you think that was Chloe being a pain in the arse,” Max said. “You two are the most volatile people I’ve ever met. Some days it’s like watching two cartoon characters having a go at each other. And the Chloe Mills I’ve heard stories about would have ripped off your tackle and made you eat it to get what she wanted. She would have tied you to a chair and tortured you until you were begging her to fuck you. What’d she do last night? Wear a short dress? Shake her tits in your direction? That’s the same woman that had straight-laced Bennett breaking all the rules and fucking her all over RMG? I don’t buy it.”

“I—” I started, blinking dumbly.

“Will, tell him your nerdy theory,” Max said. “It’s really quite brilliant.”

Will took a step closer, leaning in conspiratorially. “Have you ever heard of the calm before the storm? That moment right before a tornado or large weather occurrence when everything goes completely still?”

“I think so,” I said, absolutely not liking the sound of that and how it could relate to Chloe, but curious despite myself. “Yeah.”

Will got this really intense expression, like everything he was about to tell you was the most fascinating thing he’d ever heard. He sort of bent at the knees, using his hands to gesture wildly, dramatically illustrating any point he might have. “So vapor and heat rise, drawn up toward the center of a storm. The updrafts remove some of the saturated air, forcing it up and over the highest clouds. You following me so far?” he asked. I nodded, feeling a thread of anxiety form in my chest.

“He’s getting to the fascinating part,” Max assured me.

“So you have all this air rising, but it compresses as it falls, leaving it warmer and dryer. Calm”—he said, pausing for effect—“resulting in a stable air mass, dampening cloud formation and leaving the air totally still. The calm before the storm.”

Max was already nodding; clapping Will on the back like he’d just explained the most clever analogy ever told.

I frowned. “What are you saying?”

Max reached out, put a solid grip on my shoulder. “What we’re saying, mate, is that you think you’re keeping your bird in check. But we’re all waiting for your little bomb to explode.”

I watched Chloe like a hawk the rest of the day, and as terrified as I was to admit it, Max and Will had a point.

She didn’t give me an ounce of fight when I got back to the room and showered alone. When I kissed her bare shoulder, she smiled at me warmly, but without the slightly terrifying look in her eyes like I would either be fucked to within an inch of my life or eaten for breakfast. She was wrapped in a towel, skin still damp from her shower as she blow-dried her hair. She didn’t comment on the fact that she was naked, she didn’t ask to “help” me get dressed. She didn’t ask me to fuck her once.

She was accommodating and loving, and I was completely confused.

When the waiter messed up her order at breakfast, she didn’t react. When her aunts insisted on following her around with a camera, going so far as to film her from the opposite side of the bathroom stall, she stayed calm. When my mother suggested Chloe wear her hair down instead of up for the ceremony, Chloe had only responded with a pained smile.

By this point I could practically smell the storm in the air, and we hadn’t even started the rehearsal yet.

“What do you mean ‘small’ accident?” I said, focusing on the wedding coordinator before quickly glancing to Chloe. She was about thirty feet down the beach, pacing. A few swear words had floated back to us at first but now she was sort of strangely silent, arms folded over her chest as she walked along the sand.

I frowned, but quickly shot my attention back to our wedding coordinator, Kristin, as she launched into an explanation.

“It’s going to be fine, Bennett,” she was saying, words delivered in a way I’m sure I was supposed to find comforting, but only resulted in pissing me off. When things went wrong you screamed at someone. You became the loudest and squeakiest wheel; you let everyone know that anything less than perfect was unacceptable. You slammed doors and fired people. You didn’t stand there in your little blue Chanel suit and pearls and tell the cyborg bride and clueless groom that it would be fine.

“There’s been a tiny little problem with the wedding clothes.”

Small accident. Tiny little problem. These adjectives didn’t really fit the feeling of dread that had begun clawing its way up my throat. “The garments were dropped off earlier today, but when the bags were opened we realized there’d been some sort of miscommunication and nothing had been pressed. It’s a minor thing, Bennett. I wouldn’t even bother you with it if Chloe hadn’t been there and seen it for

herself.”

So Chloe had already seen bags of wrinkled wedding clothes and hadn’t gone nuclear. I sighed, blinking across the beach to where a few rows of temporary seating had already been set up. Chloe’s aunts were sitting on either side of Will, who had his hands folded in his lap and looked . . . tense. In fact, he looked a lot like he was deciding if he could bolt and escape this event entirely. Hanna was chatting with Mina but would look over occasionally to glance at him, and her small smile would invariably turn into the biggest shit-eating grin I’d ever seen. She was going to make an excellent ally in the years ahead.

Max and Sara were off . . . somewhere. I actually rolled my eyes when I realized they hadn’t made it down from their room yet. God, I hated him. My family stood waiting for the rehearsal to begin, talking among themselves.

“So what happens now?” I asked.

Kristin smiled. “Everything’s already been taken back to

the cleaners and it will be done in the morning. They’ve promised to drop everything off tomorrow before one.”

“The wedding is tomorrow at four,” I said, running a hand through my hair. “Don’t you think that’s cutting it a little close?”

“It shouldn’t be—”

“Not good enough. I’ll pick them up myself.”

“But—”

Having overheard, my brother stepped up and placed a hand on Kristin’s shoulder. “Just nod,” Henry said. “It’s easier that way, trust me.”

The rest of the wedding party arrived and I made my way over to Chloe. The pacing had stopped and she was sitting on the beach now, her delicate pink dress pulled up the length of her legs, toes buried in the sand.

“You ready to do the rehearsal?” I asked, testing the waters. I reached out and helped pull her to her feet, taking her hand as we walked toward the others. “You seem a little quiet.”

She shook her head. “I’m fine,” she said simply, and moved to stand where Kristin had indicated.

Okay then. I looked up at the sky, actually expecting clouds to have formed overhead.

The thing that had always driven me crazy about Chloe was that I couldn’t ignore her, whether she was in a room, or out of it. It had been that way since the day we met. I wanted her every second of every day, and it pissed me off. I’d lash out at her for distracting me and she’d dish it right back. This only resulted in my wanting her more. Always.

Even now, standing on the other side of the aisle as we listened to the Honorable James Marsters, our officiant, explain where we would be and when, I couldn’t keep my eyes off her.

“Bennett?” I heard someone say, and looked up, surprised to find everyone watching me, waiting. The distinctive sound of Max’s laughter floated up from somewhere over my shoulder and I mentally flipped him off. “Are you ready to run through it?” Kristin said, slowly, as if it wasn’t the first time she’d asked.

I frowned, annoyed to have zoned out. I was pretty sure it was important for me to know what the hell was going on. “Of course.”

“Okay then. Guys?” Kristin said. “Can we get the wedding party to line up?”

A murmur of voices surrounded us and we turned to watch as everyone got into their places near the end of the aisle.

As best man, Henry lined up first, offering his arm to Sara.

“All right, everyone,” Kristin announced, “let me explain what will happen. Best man and maid of honor will line up on this section of Windsor lawn. The chairs will begin here,” she said, moving down the aisle and motioning to a spot near the edge of the grass, “and move this way up toward the beach. Approximately three hundred and fifty of them—just beyond the two orchid arrangements—which will be placed right here.” Kristin reached for Henry and Sara and moved them into their spots. “Okay, first bridesmaid and groomsman?”

Julia stepped forward, but so did both Max and Will.

Max clucked his tongue at Will, reaching out to take Julia’s arm. “This lovely one’s mine, mate.”

“But I thought—” Will asked, searching the area. “Where’s my bridesmaid?”

“Right here, pretty boy.” I looked behind Will to see our fourth bridesmaid, Sara’s assistant, George, step up to the line, and reach for Will’s arm.

“You have got to be kidding me,” Will said, then jumped and let out what could only be considered a manly squeak as Chloe’s aunts passed by, one of them laying a sharp pinch on his ass.

“Looks like you might have a bit of a fight on your hands there,” Max said to George. “Those two ladies look like they could take you if things went badly.”

“Oh hell no,” George said in the direction the aunts had gone. “Those two cougars better watch their Raquel Welch wiglets because until that hot piece of ass and the ice queen are married tomorrow night, Sumner here is mine.”

“And mine,” Mina said, taking Will’s other arm. “This lucky man gets both of us.”

George leaned over to smile at Mina. “Are you willing to be inappropriate at all times?”

Mina winked. “Every second of every day.”

Chloe turned to Kristin. “Will there be an open bar? Like, at the end of the aisle? For me? Can I request that?”

“What is even happening here?” Will said, looking to each of us and then back to wherever the cougars had wandered off to. “Am I drunk? Hanna, they just pinched my ass and this one”—he motioned to George—“wants to claim me for his own. A little help?”

Hanna took a sip off her frilly girl drink, complete with big pink umbrella and some sort of neon glow stick. “I don’t know, you seem to be doing pretty well on your own there,” she said, then took another long pull of her straw. Hanna really wasn’t much of a drinker; I was willing to bet anyone at that resort that she’d be asleep in the sand within the hour.

“Jesus Christ, is everyone on something because I want some of whatever it is,” Will grumbled, reaching for George’s arm and looping it through his. “And don’t try to lead,” he told George, before offering his other arm to Mina.

“Now that that’s settled,” Kristin said with a sigh. “Let’s get everyone lined up.” The wedding party fell into place and stood quietly, paying attention. For once. “Okay, good. Chloe, you’re back here. Father of the bride?”

Frederick took his spot next to Chloe and we moved through the ceremony. Thank God all I had to do was walk my mother to her seat because really, this all seemed very complicated and Chloe’s breasts looked amazing in that

dress.

When my bride-to-be finally reached me at the altar, I took her hands and we both turned toward the officiant, the increasingly senile older gent with thinning gray hair, and dull blue eyes he had to narrow in order to focus on the text.

Chloe was unusually quiet, nodding in all the appropriate places but not offering anything more. A part of me was beginning to worry that this amounted to more than just a case of pre-wedding nerves. I’d just made the decision to take her aside as soon as we’d finished when the Honorable James Marsters said, “And then I will pronounce you man and wife, and then Bennett . . .”

I watched Chloe’s head snap up, her brows drawn together as if she had to have misheard.

“What did you just say?” she asked, waiting intently, and for a moment I thought, Yes, there’s the fire, there’s the woman Max was talking about this morning.

And then I realized what the judge had actually said that got her riled up. Oh no.

“Which part, young lady?” he asked, finger moving back over the worn words in his book, attempting to track down a phrase he could have skipped or mispronounced, something to have caused such a quick response.

“Did you say man and wife?” she clarified. “Man. And wife. As in, he remains a man but I will now only be referred to as something that belongs to him—no longer able to have my own identity and existing solely as someone’s wife?”

I heard Max’s voice rise above the din of confused murmurs. “Does anyone smell rain?”

James reached forward and patted Chloe’s arm above where I held her hands, wearing a fatherly smile. “I understand, sweetheart . . .” he said, turning his eyes to me for help. “Isn’t this the version of the ceremony you requested, Bennett?”

Her head whipped to me, eyes blazing. “What?”

“Chloe,” I said, and tightened my grip on her hands. “I understand what you’re saying and we’ll make the adjustment. They asked me if I had any ceremony preferences and I only—”

She took a step back, shaking her head as if she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “You?!” she shouted in the world’s most enormous overreaction, and I was actually a little impressed by how much anger and contempt she was able to form into a single word. “You gave him that? Those are the vows you chose?”

“I didn’t choose those lines specifically,” I said, horrified, albeit admittedly a little turned on by the furious rise and fall of her chest. “But that section was in the—”

“I don’t need you to explain anything to me. He’s reading from some ancient text that promotes the bullshit idea of patriarchal ownership. A version you picked out. I’ve been to church, Bennett. ‘Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands?’ Fuck. That. I didn’t put myself through college, and grad school, and an internship all while putting up with your condescending ass just so I could lose my identity and be known only as the little wife. And another thing,” she said, taking a much-needed breath and turning toward Kristin, who, could only stand there, frozen, lips parted in concern as if she were worried moving could trigger more Chloe rage. “What the fuck kind of mom-and-pop cleaners drops off thousands of dollars’ worth of dresses and tuxedos looking like they just came out of some frat boy’s duffel bag?”

Excitement, lust, and the thrill of anger blurred the edges of my vision. “What the fuck do you mean by my condescending ass? Maybe if you’d put as much effort into your personality as you did into behaving like a raging bitch all the time, I would have been a little more pleasant to be around!”

“Ha! And by pleasant, do you mean bringing you your coffee and stupid little chocolate Danishes and pretending not to notice the way you were staring at my tits?”

“Maybe I wouldn’t have stared at your tits if they weren’t in my face all the time.”

“Maybe they wouldn’t have been in your face all the time if you didn’t call me into your little hellhole of an office for every little thing. ‘Miss Mills, I can’t read the handwriting on this expense report. Miss Mills, I specifically asked that these documents be collated by ascending date, not descending. Miss Mills, I’ve dropped my pen, perhaps you could bend over and retrieve it from the floor near my chair because I’m a giant fucking pervert!’”

“I never said that last one!” I shouted.

She got right in my face, breasts pressed to my chest and eyes full of fire as she met mine. “But you thought it.”

Fuck yes I did. “I also thought about firing you about seven hundred and fifteen times. Let’s hope I made the right choice not acting on that instinct, too.”

“You are such an egotistical asshole,” she growled.

“And you’re still a man-eating shrew!” I shouted back. And God, this was so familiar and felt so fucking good, it was exactly what we needed. I wanted to throw her down, pin her to the sand, and tear through her clothes so I could bite and mark the skin underneath.

I pushed a hand into her hair and she knocked it away, gripping the fabric of my shirt instead to pull me down, kissing me too hard and for too long and with way more tongue than was appropriate considering where we were. A fact I’d only become aware of as the sound of catcalls and horrified apologies began to float around us.

“Oh, my,” I heard someone say.

“I think . . . I think they’ve had a lot of stress in the past few weeks,” my mother murmured.

“Jesus, this is awkward,” said someone else.

“Are they just going to have sex right here or . . . ?” That one was definitely George.

“Who called today?” Henry asked. “Will? Was it you?”

By now, Chloe had wrestled me down to the ground and was starting to climb onto my lap.

“Okay!” My father’s voice cut through and I straightened onto one knee, trying to disentangle my hands from Chloe’s hair and hers from my belt. “I think we’re good here. Kristin? The cars should be out front; it’s time for the rehearsal dinner. Let’s go, everyone!”


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