Beautiful Beginning: Chapter 6


“So was it the two mai tais I drank,” Chloe began, “or did Will really propose to Hanna tonight?”

“He did,” I said, turning off the water. “In the middle of our rehearsal dinner. With a microphone. In front of both my family and yours, and probably loud enough that the entire restaurant upstairs heard him. Rumor has it she said yes.”

“Okay then,” she said around her toothbrush, bending to rinse her mouth. I watched her bend, her ass push out suggestively, and felt my pulse hum heavy in my chest, the weight of need curling deep in my stomach.

“You should hurry up,” I said, tossing the towel to the sink and leaning against the counter.

“Are we going somewhere?” She stood, facing me in her tiny lace slip, eyes wide and mock-innocent, as if she wasn’t the same woman who’d just made me go down on her in a dressing room while our wedding party and family drank and dined obliviously downstairs. I was glad she was finally my Chloe again, the woman who was every bit as greedy as I was.

But now it was my turn.

“No. You’re going to suck my dick and then I’m going to fuck you until someone has to bang on the door and tell us it’s time to get married,” I said, unbuttoning my shirt.

She straightened, eyes tracking each inch of skin as it became visible. “Oh?”

I pushed her against the wall, ran my hands down her curves to rest on her ass. “You may have visible trouble walking tomorrow.”

“And your rule?”

“Rules are for suckers and idiots who aren’t getting laid.” Leaning in, I ran my tongue along her neck, bent to lift her and wrap her legs around my waist. I walked us into the bedroom, shutting off the lights as we went. “And I am tired of being a sucker, Miss Mills.”

“Did you come to this conclusion before or after you made me come?” she asked, then gasped when I tossed her to the mattress.

“Why are you still talking?” I growled against her mouth. I kissed her hard and with all the frustration I’d felt the past week. I sucked in her little sounds, hissed as her fingers pushed my shirt from my body and she forced my pants down with her legs.

“You will suck me off,” I said. “And then I’m going to fuck you on your hands and knees.” My head snapped up at a sound from the other room, and I pulled back, blinking into the darkness. “Did you hear that?” I asked, almost certain I heard footsteps across the tile floor in the foyer.

“Fuck yes,” she sighed, oblivious, still dragging her nails down my sides. “Tell me what else—”

“Chloe—”

“Close, but not quite, sweet stuff,” a male voice said next to my ear.

I bolted upright into a fight stance, heart racing just as the lights flipped on.

“Jesus, George. We said to knock!” a woman hissed.

I scrambled to hide Chloe’s mostly naked body. “Mina?” I said, wincing and mostly blind from the sudden light as the shape of my sister-in-law stepped into the room.

Someone threw a shirt at me, but it was quickly batted away.

“Don’t you dare!” George warned, rushing to stand in front of me. “I will personally throttle anyone who hands this man a single piece of clothing. And, damnit, Mina. You said he’d be naked.”

“Oh, my bad,” she said, smiling. “I forgot he’s guarding his virtue and trying to keep it pure before the wedding. I might have forgotten to tell you that. Though judging by the looks of things,” she dropped her eyes to my boxers, “he was about to give it up. Might want to put something over that, Ben. Mommy’s coming.”

I suddenly realized I was standing in only my boxers. Hard.

“Get out!” I said, reaching for a pillow and holding it in front of me. Chloe bent to the floor and pulled on a cotton robe. The intruders were dressed in black from head to toe and looked like a group of cartoon banditos. I’m sure that at any other moment I would have found this hilarious.

“Oh calm down, Bennett,” my mother said, walking into the room with Sara and Julia right on her heels. “We’re here to take Chloe with us.”

“What? How did you people even get a key?” I asked.

“You do not want to know,” George said.

Mom rounded the bed and reached for Chloe’s hand. “You know the rule, Bennett: groom can’t see the bride the day of the wedding. And we are exactly five minutes from that.” She leaned close to me, whispering, “I texted you earlier to warn you we’d be sneaking in and stealing her.”

“Mom!” I yelled, losing patience. “I don’t have time to read five hundred text messages a day about Dad’s pants and the A/C in your room and your favorite dish at the restaurant downstairs!”

“Does anyone care what I think?” Chloe asked.

“No,” George and Mina said in unison.

“Fine,” she said, tightening her robe. “You’re all lucky I’m exhausted and got some earlier or I’d kick every one of your asses. Just get me to a bed. I don’t even care whose. It can be yours for all I care,” she said, pointing to George.

“Not a chance in hell, princess.”

Had the world gone completely insane?

“Sara,” I said, spinning to face her, pleading. “How did they talk you into this? You’re supposed to be the nice one. They will drag you down with them, Dillon—run.”

She shrugged. “This is actually kind of fun. I mean, with your newfound chastity we expected to find you crocheting or playing Scrabble or something. This is way better.”

“You’re all nuts,” I said. “All of you. Even my mother.”

“Two minutes!” George called out. The room broke into a flurry of activity: drawers were opened and rummaged through; the armoire was searched for anything that might be needed tomorrow. The bathroom was ransacked and pilfered of every single one of Chloe’s things.

“Oh stop being such a tight-ass, Bennett. It’s tradition, and tomorrow when you see her walk down the aisle it will all be worth it. Do we have everything?” Mom called.

Several different voices confirmed that indeed, everything was in order for the kidnapping of my fiancée, and after a mad flurry of activity in the main room, Chloe was hustled out without so much as a lingering kiss on my lips, and the suite fell deadly quiet.

It took me hours to finally fall asleep. The room was too quiet, the bed too empty, and I hadn’t gotten laid. Again. My hand was starting to feel like a pity fuck.

Waking up alone sucked. One would think I’d be accustomed to it by now—with our busy schedules one of us was always coming or going and we each spent our fair share of nights in an empty bed—but now that I’d grown accustomed to waking with Chloe warm and pliable and right there, it felt wrong, like a vital part of me was missing.

It was still dark; early enough that a damp chill hung in the air and the birds were relatively quiet. With the stillness outside, the ocean seemed louder than ever. I was hard and alone, and Chloe was somewhere nearby, but too fucking far away to touch. My stomach twisted and I closed my eyes, reaching for a pillow to block it all out.

This was going to be a long day.

I forced myself up, moved to the bathroom to take care of business, shower, and dress. We were getting married today. Married. And the mental list in my head of everything that needed to be done was about as long as the hours remaining in the day.

There were too many clocks here, I’d decided. There was the one I wore, which Chloe got me the day we opened the New York office of RMG. An ornate clock over the wet bar, one on the TV, another on the docking station by the bed. I could tell from almost any point in the suite exactly how many hours until Chloe would be awake, until I got to see her again, until she was my wife.

Will and Max were waiting for me downstairs. Huddled together near the fireplace in the grand room, they were bickering over a map displayed on Max’s phone.

“It’s on University,” Will was saying.

“It’s not,” Max argued. “It’s the one on Robinson.” He looked up, took in my giant scowl, and shook his head. “Good morning, sunshine. I’m assuming we didn’t sleep well last night?”

I rolled my eyes. “You would know. Were you missing a very pregnant girlfriend? Because she ended up in my room.”

“What?” Will said.

“The entire bridal party including George showed up last night, intent on stealing my fiancée so I wouldn’t see her until the ceremony. I’m assuming they’ve got her bound and gagged in this hotel somewhere while they cover her in white lace and iridescent sparkles.” I took in Will’s posture, the circles under his eyes, and his nonstop yawning. “What’s up with you?”

“Hanna,” he said, stifling another yawn. “Not sure if it’s the cougar sisters or what but damn, I haven’t gotten a full night’s sleep since we got here.”

“I hate you both,” I said with a sweeping hand gesture.

“Good to see you’re in such high spirits today, mate,” Max laughed.

“Suck it, Stella,” I said, breezing by him and heading in the direction of the concierge desk. He and Will moved into step on either side of me.

The concierge looked up as we approached. I gave her my name and handed over my identification and credit card, and waited while she finished the rental paperwork. I’d reserved a large cargo van for our trip to the cleaner; wanting to make sure everything would arrive in perfect condition, even the garment bags pristine. I closed my hand around the keys, feeling a sense of calm at finally being in control of something. This was how you got things done: you fucking did them yourself.

“Mr. Ryan!”

I turned at the sound of my name, the familiar clicking of heels on the wood floor.

Shit.

“Kristin,” I said. “We were just on our way out.”

“The clothes,” she said, nodding toward the key ring in my hand.

“Is there something I can do for you?”

“Ahhh,” she started, and gave me the most pained smile I’d ever seen. My stomach dropped on instinct. “There’s a slight issue.”

Deep breaths.

“‘Slight’?” I repeated. Small accident. Tiny problem. Minor wrinkle.

“Small,” she assured me with a smile. “Insignificant.”

“Here we go,” I heard Will say.

We followed her out a back door, across a patio, and down to the lawn where they were currently setting up for the wedding. Or trying to. My shoe sank into the grass with a sickening squelch on the first step.

“Oh, God,” I said, looking around. “Fuuuuck.” The entire area was flooded. Chairs were knocked over, tables askew with legs sinking into the swampy grass, workers rushing around in a panic.

“A sprinkler line broke during the night,” she said, apologetically. “They’ve stopped the water but as you can see . . .”

“Wow,” Will said, poking at a puddle with the tip of his sneaker.

I scrubbed my face with my hands and felt Max grip my shoulder, squeezing.

“They can fix it though, yeah?” he said, realizing I was two seconds from losing it and stepping in front of me.

“Oh, definitely,” Kristin was saying, though I couldn’t be sure through the sound of blood whooshing in my ears.

My phone buzzed in my pocket and I pulled it out, panicked that Chloe had seen this and was freaking out.

But it was only my mother: Honey, do you happen to know if your father packed his black dress shoes? I can’t find them in our room but he says he did.

I shoved the phone back in my pocket, tuning in as Kristin was saying, “They’ve fixed the line, now we’ll work on getting this area dried up or move everything a bit farther down the beach.”

Max turned to me, charming smile in place. “See? Nothing to worry about, mate. We’ll pick up the dresses, get you some food . . . or maybe some alcohol, judging by your expression, and everything will be fine when we return. And if it’s all the same to you, I’ll just be taking these.” He plucked the keys from my hand.

“What are you doing?” I asked, reaching for them.

“Sorry, Ben, best for everyone, I’m afraid. You’re likely to mow down pedestrians in your state of mind and that would put a definite wrinkle in the wedding festivities.”

“I can drive, Max. Give me the goddamn keys.”

“Have you seen yourself? Got that vein thing happening,” he said, reaching up to tap my forehead before I smacked his hand away.

Will snorted behind me and I turned, leveling him with a glare. He held his hands out in front of him. “The man has a point,” he said, backing away.

I spun to Max again. “Do you even know how to drive?”

“Of course I do.”

“Here?”

He waved me off. “Left side, right side. How different can it be?”

Max guided us back through the hotel and out to valet. We argued the entire way, me calling Max a bossy asshole, and Max asking me where I’d left my purse. Will trailed behind, half asleep on his feet.

An attendant approached us immediately, ignoring our bickering as he matched the keys to a list pinned to a clipboard. We followed him to a white cargo van parked at the curb, cool in the shade of a grouping of palms. I waved off his offer of directions, placed a few dollars in his hand, and turned my back as he walked away.

“So, the plan. Will,” Max said, waiting a beat before reaching out and smacking Will across the cheek.

Will startled, eyes wide. “What?”

“You all right?”

“God, I’m just so fucking tired.”

“Well, have some coffee and snap out of it,” Max said. “You’ll ride with us to the cleaners, then take a cab from there to pick up the rings.”

“What, am I your little sidekick now? Why can’t Henry help with any of this?”

“Because Henry talks too much and you’re much prettier,” Max said. “Who knows? We may need to sweet talk a feisty old bird at the dry cleaners, and who is better than you at seducing cougars?” He patted Will’s cheek, cooing, “No one, Blossom. No one.”

Will yawned, clearly too tired to argue, and waved him off. “Yeah, whatever.”

Max walked around the van, stopping just beside the passenger door. “Ben, your chariot awaits.”

“Fuck you,” I said, slugging him in the shoulder as I climbed into the seat.

But I could hear him laughing as he rounded the front and got in, asking, “All right back there, William?”

“Yeah, yeah,” came the mumbled reply. “You’re both assholes.”

Max put the keys in the ignition and the engine roared to life. After grinning proudly at me he turned back and his face grew puzzled when he attempted to put the van in gear, only to be met with a horrible grinding noise.

“That’s encouraging,” I said.

“Would you stop being such a twat and relax? I’ve got this.”

“Of course you do.”

The van lurched forward and I made a dramatic point about fastening my seat belt. The tires screeched as we took the first turn and I reached blindly for the dash, anything to hold on to. Will wasn’t as lucky, and the sound of him tumbling around in the cargo area could be heard from the front seat.

“When was the last time you actually drove a car?” I asked, bracing myself as we prepared to take another turn.

He pursed his lips as he considered this. “Vegas,” he said with a nod, completely unfazed by the trail of blaring horns in our wake.

“Vegas? I don’t remember you driving anywhere in Vegas.”

He checked the directions on his phone, blazed through a yellow light at the very last minute, and nearly rear-ended a car at a stop sign. “It’s possible I borrowed a car while you boys were occupied.”

“Borrowed? Jesus.”

“Yeah. And actually . . . to be fair, it was a limo, not a car. But that’s not the point. I got there safe and sound in the end.”

“And did you notice anything unusual? Maybe a few rude hand gestures aimed in your direction? Police sirens?”

After several near-misses with much smaller cars—

because you could practically see the Brit working to flip left and right around in his mind—we pulled up in front of the cleaners. Max glared at me as he put the van in park.

“Oh, God, somebody let me out,” Will groaned. I climbed down and opened the back door, watching as Will stumbled from the cargo area, and immediately moved to throw up in the bushes. Apparently, my point had been made.

The dry cleaner was a small, nondescript business nestled between a Chinese food restaurant and a comic book store in the center of a strip mall. Max motioned for me to lead the way and we paused at the front door, gazing up at a neon sign reading Satisfaction Guaranteed buzzing overhead.

“Bit unfortunate, that,” Max mused under his breath.

Thank God the clothes were ready. We opened each bag to make sure everything was accounted for—six dresses, eight tuxedos—and proceeded to carry them out to the van. Max made sure to keep his promise to my mother, and kept me far from Chloe’s wedding gown.

“There’s no way you’re driving us back,” I said to Max once the last bag had been loaded.

“You still going on about that?” he asked

“Did you see yourself out there? After he puked, Will was practically kissing the ground.” I reached for the keys, managing to snag them from his hand.

“Like you could do any better? My gran’s a better driver than you. She’s eighty-two and has glaucoma.”

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the sound of the police helicopter and the warrant for your arrest,” I said, and swore as Max grabbed the keys back from me.

Will stepped between us, snagging the key ring and rubbing his temples. “Will you two just shut the fuck up? If I have to go back to the hotel and run from those women all night, I am not putting up with your bullshit, too. Ben? You drive,” he said, pushing the keys into my hand again. “Max? Play nice and wait your turn. My cab is here. I’ll pick up the rings and meet you back there.” He looked between us, waiting for some sort of protest.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Fine,” Max sighed.

“Good. Now try not to kill each other on the way back.”

I entered the address for the Del into my phone and waited for the directions to appear. Max sat silently in the seat next to me.

“Thanks,” I said, and started the engine. Although we’d barely made it to the dry cleaner’s alive, Max had handled the entire morning with his trademark calm and optimism. I had to admit I’d be drunk and firing employees that weren’t even mine in the hotel lobby if he hadn’t stepped in and taken charge.

“You’re a dick,” he said back. I smiled as I pulled out of the parking lot.

Saturday afternoon in San Diego meant traffic, a lot of it. We’d been lucky enough on the way in, but it had definitely picked up by the time we pulled on the freeway. Max was insisting I was going the wrong way when his phone rang.

“Yeah, Will,” he said, and then paused before putting it on speaker. “Go ahead.”

“Which one of you two idiots was supposed to close the van door?”

“What?” I asked, and then looked up to the rearview mirror. Sure enough, one of them had been left open and was swinging back and forth on its hinges.

“Fuck!” I shouted, and it was as if the world suddenly shifted into high speed. Cars appeared out of nowhere, veering, honking, tires squealing past us as I tried to make my way to the side of the road. In the rearview mirror I saw the breeze catch the edge of one of the bags, curling it like it weighed no more than a candy wrapper. Up and back down. Up and back down. Max fumbled with his seat belt before vaulting to the back, arms outstretched as he reached for the endangered garment. But it was too late. We hit a small bump and it was just enough for the wind to lift the entire stack, letting them hover in midair before they were gone, sliding like dominoes out the door and onto the asphalt below.

It was pandemonium. I swore. I cut off a huge truck as I veered into the far right lane and came to a skidding stop at the side of the freeway. I wrenched open my door, shouting for Max as we both jumped out, watching in horror as cars flew down the two-lane highway, the garment bags scattered along it.

“Over there!” I yelled, spotting the larger of the bags near the median, the one that contained Chloe’s dress.

Will’s cab came to a screeching halt just behind us and we split up, each of us moving in opposite directions, sprinting and dodging through traffic to scoop up the dresses one by one and drag them back to the side of the road.

Cars honked all around us and the air filled with the pungent scent of tires skidding on asphalt. Above it all my pulse hammered in my ears, and my only thought was to get to Chloe’s dress and bring it back. I tried to avoid thinking about what failure would mean.

I ignored a particularly angry string of curse words shouted at me from a Benz and managed to make it to the median in one piece. I looked at Chloe’s bag, frantically searching the exterior for any damage. It seemed fine, intact except for a small rip on the bottom edge.

I made it back to the van and pushed it into Max’s arms. “Check her dress,” I said, bending at the knees and filling my lungs with oxygen, praying to God that her wedding gown was okay.

“It’s fine,” Max said, the relief in his voice clear even above the roar of passing traffic. “Perfect.”

I let out a breath. “Thank fuck. Do we have them all?” I walked over to the van to see how many remained inside.

Will looked down to the garments in his arms. “Four,” he said.

“Six,” Max counted, panting.

“There’s four back here,” I said. “How many were there again?”

“Fourteen. All of us, Henry, the ring bearer, your dad, Chloe’s dad, Chloe, the girls, George, your mom, and the flower girl. Right?” Will asked, counting down on his fingers, still hunched on the asphalt.

I nodded. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

This time, nobody fought over who got to drive.

I felt like I’d run a marathon by the time we got back to the hotel. We pulled up to valet and Kristin met us at the curb, ready to take over from there. She assured me that the worst of the water had been dealt with, and asked if I wanted to see how the preparations were coming. I declined, wanting nothing more than a shower, a nap, and for it to be time to meet Chloe at the altar. I looked down at my watch: three hours to go.

Will pulled up as we stood there, paid his driver, and stepped out of the cab. He held up his arm to show us the bright blue bag swinging from his fingertips.

“The rings are here,” Max said, bumping my shoulder with his. “Makes it feel a bit more official, wouldn’t you agree?”

I nodded, too relieved to even mock Will for his stupid swagger.

“Well, look who’s the only one that hasn’t fucked anything up today—” he said just as his toe caught a crack in the concrete and he pitched forward, crashing to the ground. The bag flew from his hands, the boxes flew from the bag, and of course, my newly polished ring tumbled out and onto the driveway.

I’m not sure who dove onto the asphalt first, but in the end it was Max holding out my wedding band, a deep dent in the strip of platinum running through the center. I was annoyed, sure, but after the day I’d had, it seemed a perfect reminder for the rest of my life: Remember that time you almost ruined your wife’s wedding dress? Better to feel that dent, I suppose, than her wrath for the next sixty years.

“Doesn’t look too bad,” Max was saying. He placed it on his finger, straightened his hand out in front of him. “Can hardly see it, really.”

We all nodded.

“Know what would make it completely go away?” Will said.

“What’s that, William?” Max asked.

His answer was simple: “Alcohol.”

I didn’t get completely shitfaced. It was my wedding day, after all. But after a couple of drinks with the boys, I felt better than I had all week. And I was ready to get this fucking show on the road.

It was strange to get ready alone. Showering, shaving, dressing in the empty suite. For any other big event, Chloe would be by my side, happily chatting about whatever was on her mind. But for the biggest event of our lives—our wedding—I was preparing solo. I’d put on a tuxedo dozens of times in my life, eventually getting so comfortable wearing them that I barely glanced at my reflection before leaving the house. But here, as I stared back at myself, I was aware that Chloe would look down the aisle at me, walk toward me, agree to marry me. I wanted to be exactly what she’d always pictured her husband would be. I tried to straighten my hair with my fingers, made sure I hadn’t missed a spot shaving. I checked my mouth for any stray toothpaste, tugged at my shirt cuffs.

For the first time all week, I was the one texting my mother.

Any doubts I’d had about Kristin were gone the moment I stepped outside and saw the ceremony setup. Rows of white chairs draped in sheer white and Tiffany blue ribbon stretched in front of me; white flower petals covered the aisle. A sea of tables draped in crystal and silver and more Tiffany blue covered the lawn area. Chloe’s favorite flowers—orchids—were everywhere: in vases, clinging to the branches of huge potted trees, hanging in fragrant clusters from the tent ceilings. The sun was just starting to set, the guests were all seated, and I stole a moment to steady myself, gripping Henry’s shoulder as I took it all in.

Kristin motioned that it was time to begin and I nodded, vaguely aware of the soothing music and the unbelievable sunset and the huge fucking moment in front of me. I reached for my mom’s arm and began escorting her down the aisle.

“Did you ask the caterer if they got fresh—”

“Not now, Mom,” I hissed through clenched teeth, smiling at the guests.

“You okay, sweetheart?” she asked when we reached her seat and I kissed her cheek.

“Almost.” I kissed her one more time, and took my place at the end of the aisle, my heart clawing its way up my throat.

The music began and Sara and Henry were the first down the aisle. Even from where I stood, I could see she looked absolutely stunning. Her smile was huge, and she seemed to be almost laughing as she moved toward me. The first thing I noticed was the soft sound of suction as the heel of her shoe sank into the wet ground with each step. I exhaled a steadying breath, knowing it could have been much, much worse. And Sara was laughing. Surely, this was a good sign?

The second thing I noticed was the low hum of giggles that began near the back rows of seating, and grew louder as Sara and my brother moved toward me. I looked to Henry, who seemed to be barely holding it together, and then back to Sara, narrowing my eyes and I took in the full length of her body.

Oh

my

God.

A wide set of greasy tire tracks cut across her dress where it covered her very round and very pregnant stomach.

I was gripped by a white-hot rush of panic as I remembered the dresses, the way they’d looked scattered like roadkill as traffic whizzed by all around them. Sara looked like she and her baby had been run over by a truck. I felt all of the blood drain from my face.

“Oh, no,” I groaned. All I’d cared about was the state of Chloe’s dress. We hadn’t even thought to look at the others.

As if Sara read my mind, she shook her head and motioned behind her, mouthing the words she’s perfect, in reassurance.

I closed my eyes for a beat, urging myself to relax. Chloe is fine. She’s not going to come down the aisle with a cleaver. Just fucking calm down, Ben.

The music changed and I heard the sound of three hundred and fifty bodies stand up, a collective sigh that ran through the guests. I opened my eyes just as everyone turned to see the bride at the end of the aisle.

My Chloe.

Everything seemed to settle at once and for the first time in my life, absolutely nothing else mattered. Not deadlines or work, just this. My brain—which thrived on spreadsheets and order and managing every detail of my life and the lives of those around me—had gone quiet. Not in an unpleasant way, but in a way that finally said, take a seat and pay attention because this moment is bigger than you and every decision you’ve ever made.

Chloe’s chin was tucked low, her arm looped through her dad’s and she clutched a bouquet of orchids in her free hand. Her hair was piled on top of her head and where I’d normally be plotting how I’d get it down and get my fingers in it while I threw her down onto any available flat surface, all I could think about was how I wanted to leave it up. I could see every inch of her face, and she looked so beautiful. I wanted to freeze this moment, stretch it out, and make it last forever.

It was clear that Chloe, even down to the last moment, was working something out. Her eyes were closed, her face arranged in a look of concentration as she sifted through her thoughts. Just as clear was the moment she figured it all out. Lifting her head, her eyes moved up the aisle to me, and it was as if time stopped and everything else fell away. I could feel myself smile, then see it reflected in the way her entire face seemed to light up, and I did the only thing I could think.

I whispered the words, “Come here.”


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