My Stepbrother the Groom–An Excerpt

Howdy folks! If you’ve been on the fence about checking out Lexi’s new romantic comedy, My Stepbrother the Groom, why not give it a taste, just to see if it strikes your fancy? Because we love this story (and we’re sure you’ll love it, too), we’re giving you the first three chapters here. Buy links are below! (Or, if your a Platinum Reader, the whole book is already in your library!)

Enjoy!

MyStepbrothertheGroom-600Chapter 1

Ella kept thinking that she’d probably love working at Panache— if her boss hadn’t been Valerie. Sometimes she thought about quitting. But there wasn’t really a point. As an employee, she could leave Valerie, but she’d still be her daughter. And that could be so much worse.

“ … could do a whole lot better, is my point,” her mother was saying, waving her zinfandel like a visual aid, “and that’s what’s so disappointing, really: you’re smart enough to make your own decisions, and yet they’re often so poor. I’m not telling you how to live your life, Ella. You know that. But if you’d just listened to me in the first place about Chase, you wouldn’t be in this situation.”

They were behind an over-the-top ice sculpture carved into the shape of a champagne-peeing mermaid. Valerie had commissioned the sculpture and said the mermaids were merely swimming in champagne gushers, but Ella knew peeing when she saw it. She looked past the monstrosity as her mother continued to lecture, across the lawn at a collection of black-suited men: groomsmen or country club butlers, or possibly undertakers in case things got too lively.

Ella crossed one arm across her chest then propped her own wineglass arm against the back of its palm like a brace. That wine hand needed all the support it could get. This would be a long wedding at her mother’s side.

“It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Chase, dear,” Valerie continued. “It’s just that he’s so … well, you know.” She shivered with disgust to punch the idea that “there’s nothing wrong with Chase” in its gut. “I’d never say anything bad about someone you’ve chosen to spend time with because it’s not my place and you’re a big girl, but … well … let’s just be honest. How far is he going to go in life?”

“He has a good job, Mom.”

Valerie flapped a hand to show she knew that already, since she was such a huge Chase Donovan fan, and it was ridiculous for Ella to think she was implying anything less than stellar about such a wonderful man. Then she moved into describing his faults — and how Ella was smart enough to know whom she wanted to date, but also not really.

“Oh, I didn’t mean his job. I just meant his … well … his ambition, maybe? And he doesn’t always respect your wishes.”

“Like Dad always respected yours?”

“Well, that’s why we’re not together anymore, isn’t it? Not that you and Chase need to ‘not be together’ or anything.” She feigned embarrassment to bury her total sincerity. “Not that I’m implying that. At all. It’s just that … well, frankly, for you to be here alone, at a wedding, without a date even though you’re supposedly seeing someone … ”

Ella sighed. “Why do I need a date at a wedding, Mom? It’s not my wedding.”

“And if things keep going this way, when will it be? You’re twenty-seven years old, Ella. The question you should be asking yourself is, do you see yourself staying with Chase for the rest of your life?”

That wasn’t what she should be asking herself. There were dozens of questions Ella asked herself on a regular basis, but she never answered any of them. They were perpetually stuck in her mental inbox, doomed to dwell in a purgatory of someday. Yet Ella was fairly sure that wondering about her long-term potential with Chase wasn’t even on that list. His fate had been decided a few nights ago when, during a dinner out, he’d picked his teeth with a menu just before telling Ella his dream to “hit the trifecta” by attending the Super Bowl, the World Series, and the NBA finals in the same year. This was at the top of Chase’s list. Ella could come too if she wanted, assuming she was cool with how drunk he was going to get “for sure because, you know.” Ella had thought for one horrifying second that he might ask her to seal the deal with a high-five.

Ella couldn’t see herself with Chase for the rest of her life. On the outside, she could see herself with him for maybe two weeks at any given time. That was the way things were with Chase. About twice a month, she weighed his personality against the fact that he was pretty good in bed and decided whether or not to renew him, like a library book. But she wouldn’t admit any of that to her mother. Doing so would just give her more power. It was like how when you read Peter Pan, you were supposed to believe in fairies to keep them breathing. Valerie was like an incredibly powerful, passive-aggressive fairy with Chanel wings.

“Why does it always need to be about ‘the rest of my life,’ Mom?” Ella said, sipping her wine. “Not everything needs to be life and death. Not that I really feel like justifying myself, but what if Chase and I are just having fun?”

This was the wrong thing to say. Valerie had seen enough episodes of Sex and the City to equate “just having fun” with empty sex. Not that it was any of her business. But having no right to say anything had never really stopped her from speaking her mind.

“You’re twenty-seven, Ella,” she repeated, in case Ella had already forgotten. “Aren’t you past ‘just having fun’ by now?”

Ella didn’t think this was fair. Before Chase, she’d dated Connor. Before Connor, Carl. Three boyfriends since high school — not exactly a partying lifestyle. She might have had more, but Ella only seemed to attract men whose names began with C, and there were only so many. It’s not like she’d had as much “fun” as her sister Carly — whose name also began with that flippant C and who had no such reservations.

Ella didn’t get a chance to respond. The question was either rhetorical, or her mother didn’t think she was qualified to answer.

“Now you’re twenty-seven. But you have to add years because it takes time to build a future. You can’t marry a man until you’ve been with him for a year at least — and that’s counting from when he asks, not when you actually have the wedding. You could meet a new man today and be lucky to get married by thirty.”

“Mom … ”

“And are you really going to have kids right away, after you get married? No. You need a year, Ella; that’s what your father and I did. Year one was for us. Year two, we had you. Year six, we had Carly. We needed a year to enjoy each other before the intimate part of our relationship was over. Now, me? I’ve had my kids. My next relationship can be about fun.”

Ella decided not to comment. Her mother was smiling in a way that was probably supposed to be sly, perhaps even knowing or sexy. Ella didn’t want to encourage her. She knew on an intellectual level that her mother was still beautiful, but nobody should imagine their mother having that particular kind of fun. Ever.

Now Valerie was craning her neck, her perfectly styled blonde hair swinging in a way that was almost as choreographed as the rest of this wedding. Ella supposed she should take some pride in the beauty around them. Panache was more responsible for the look of this rather elaborate ceremony than anyone, and that definitely extended to the clothing and hair of one Valerie Roberts, who apparently was allowed to have all the casual, menopausal sex she wanted. Even the stylist company’s president was elegantly arranged for the bride and groom’s special day.

“What are you looking for?” said Ella.

“Oh, nothing.”

“Are you looking for Taylor?”

“No. Mind your business.” She said it playfully. Ella didn’t recall a giggle-worthy topic getting laid on the table, but her mother seemed to remember differently. She was harboring a secret that Ella didn’t know she was supposed to be curious about.

“Jesus, Mom. Just tell me.”

“I’m looking for someone. Just leave it at that, and stop being so nosy.”

Ella sipped her wine. Then she took a larger sip of liquid courage.

“Not Taylor,” said Valerie.

She knew what her mother was up to: trying to get Ella to ask her what she was doing a few more times, to drag the information out of her so she could act reluctant before answering. But Ella was used to this gambit. Whoever her mother was looking for, her endgame in finding them was sure to be annoying, like searching for an obnoxious pot of gold at the asshole’s end of a rainbow.

“Not Brent either,” Valerie added.

Ella wondered if it would be in bad taste to use her now-empty wine glass to scoop champagne from the fountain.

“I’m sure they’re in good hands. Brent should be with his best man and Taylor will be with her mother and the bridesmaids. I just hope she doesn’t forget my directions on how to change the way she was going to wear her veil.”

Ella rolled her eyes. “Oh my God, mom. I’m going to die if you don’t tell me who you’re looking for. I soooo need to know. Please stop teasing me. I can’t take it any—”

“There’s just someone I want you to meet, is all,” she said, giving Ella a big smile and missing her sarcasm entirely.

“Oh, great.”

“He’ll be in the wedding.” She was still craning her neck. “He’s related to Taylor. Or Brent. I don’t remember which.”

Ella sighed. She turned toward the gazebo where the couple would exchange their vows. Her mother had been responsible for every ribbon strung over its top, like an already-popped New Year’s favor. Ella supposed it was pretty, but she’d have picked something more understated, with simpler lines, like she’d done for the bridesmaids’ dresses. Their two styles somehow meshed despite their differences of opinion, and Ella supposed it was the reason so many of their client testimonials — for weddings and non-weddings alike — included the word “eclectic.”

Personal shopping was the only bit of Panache business Ella handled entirely on her own, and those testimonials tended to feature the word “classic” instead. If Valerie had her way, Ella would take over Panache, and eclectic would vanish. But that was another of those ongoing debates, unlikely to get solved today or any day soon.

“It was nice of them to invite us, wasn’t it?” Valerie was still looking around for whomever she’d decided to fix Ella up with.

Ella gave a noncommittal grunt. She hadn’t wanted to come. She didn’t particularly like weddings, and their work for the couple was already done, abdicated to the planner as of a week ago. But her mother had been so insistent, and now Ella saw why.

There was someone she wanted her daughter to meet.

Fabulous. Just fabulous.

“I’m going to see if I can find him.” She touched Ella’s bare forearm and gave her a condescending little smile. “I can’t wait for you to meet him, dear. You’re going to love him!”

Valerie walked into the mingling crowd of wedding-goers, leaving Ella to hide behind the fountain.

She watched her mother stop to fawn over affluent, well-connected guests rather than continuing her beeline toward whatever loser she’d hooked for her spinster daughter.

Ella’s phone chirped from inside her tiny, dress-up purse. She opened it, read the new text message, and felt her face go hot with anger.

Then she scooped a glass of champagne from the fountain after all, and gulped a third of it down before responding, furious.

Chapter 2

The string quartet played quietly in the background as Ella stared at her cell phone. An ironic backdrop: light, romantic music meant to irritate those who were feeling anything but light and romantic.

The screen said: NOT WORKING OUT. SORRY. I HAVE YOUR GYM SHOES.

Beside the message was a tiny thumbnail image of Chase. The app pulled from Facebook, and Chase had recently changed his profile photo to one from his college years, showing himself with seven hot dogs shoved into his mouth.

Ella stared at the message for ten full seconds. This couldn’t be what she thought it was. Didn’t he know she’d just been defending him to her mother? Or did his psychic ability go a level deeper: seeing all the way down to the way she’d been planning to break up with him sometime soon, eventually, if she got around to it, or maybe not because, holy crap, was that a hassle, and hey, he’s (sometimes) better than a vibrator?

Ella texted back: EXCUSE ME?

She’d typed the text with the force of ten little thumb-punches, so it was hard to believe how long it took for him to respond. At least thirty seconds. By the time a string of dots appeared next to his hot dog image, displaying his pending reply, she’d already begun picturing him groveling, having suddenly realized his giant mistake.

IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S ME

This had to be a joke. Ella felt her forehead growing hot.

She replied: JUST TELL ME EXACTLY WHAT YOU ARE DOING HERE. SPELL IT OUT. PRETEND I’M AN IDIOT AND I NEED YOU TO BE VERY, VERY CLEAR AND OBVIOUS.

Chase texted back: U R HOT, BUT I NEED MY INDEPENDINCE

ARE YOU BREAKING UP WITH ME BY TEXT? AND ARE YOU ALSO RETARDED?

DON’T BE MAD

HOW CAN I NOT BE MAD? YOU CAN’T EVEN DO THIS IN PERSON? I WAS GOING TO BREAK UP WITH YOU ANYWAY!

Ella looked at the screen before sending that last one. Then, knowing how spiteful and bitter and juvenile she was being, she added AND YOU HAVE A LITTLE DICK then hit send.

U R BEING A BITCH

“Fucker!” she yelled, way too loud. The phone didn’t react, but an old woman who looked a little like England’s queen mother did. She was passing by when Ella insulted her phone and glared over with wide eyes. She was wearing a giant hat speckled in white and pink flowers. Ella wanted to pause her text battle to find out whether or not the wedding’s stylist had assigned her that hat, because if so, her mother was going to get a harsh talking-to.

The woman moved on. She looked back once she reached an old man who was, thankfully, hatless. She said something to him, and then the old man looked back too. Ella, knowing she was projecting, repressed an urge to give them both the finger.

Her thumbs moved with fury.

YOU CAN’T BREAK UP WITH ME. I’M BREAKING UP WITH YOU. 

His response came back immediately: WHATEVER.

Ella could almost hear his snarky voice: half-pouting, half-superior. The same voice he used in every argument when he realized he wasn’t going to win. During the course of their two-year, mediocre-at-best-but-what-are-you-going-to-do relationship, she’d probably heard the word “whatever” more than “the.”

“Oh, fuck you!” Ella spat, her heart beating an irate rhythm in her chest. She hated that Chase was getting a rise out of her without even being present, but he was. And the worst part was that he probably wasn’t feeling anything at all, aside from possibly a growing conviction that he’d made the right choice because she was just a PMSing bitch who’d been a decent lay but nothing more. She could almost imagine him sitting on a couch somewhere, flanked by his buddies, all of them watching TV and encouraging Chase to shake off the old ball and chain so he could finally have some fun for a change.

“Do you mind?” said the old woman. She seemed to have gathered reinforcements; there were now several other flower-hatted antique women nearby. Ella realized she’d moved very near the cake table, and the women were all trying to take photos.

She stepped away, barely paying attention, unsure if she was moving into the thick of pre-wedding buildup or toward the sidelines. There were still several well-dressed guests milling nearby, but Ella didn’t think she could get away. Ushers were forming a moving Red Rover line, pushing people toward the chairs rather than asking the opposing side to send anyone running over.

She clicked to the phone’s desktop, then punched Chase in the face with her index finger. She wished she hadn’t made him a custom icon, but she’d done it during happier, more deluded times. Was Chase Donovan worth speed dial? Yes, there had been a fairy tale day when she’d believed that he was.

His voice in her ear was like an auditory intrusion.

“Hey, Ella.”

“Hey yourself. Are you fucking serious?”

“Calm down.”

“I won’t ‘calm down.’ What’s the matter with you?”

“Look. I think we both knew this was coming. We should see other people.”

Which probably meant he already was. Chase had nice arms and a square chin. He had a smile that was broad enough to cut two half moons into each cheek and turn his eyes into charming, sexy, half-lidded almonds. Even at almost thirty, he managed to have an eighteen-year-old’s boyish charm. He melted panties with a look. He’d probably found someone, had sex with her, and figured it was time to level up.

Chase’s charm had certainly worked on Ella at the beginning. She barely remembered deciding to date him. He’d smiled, her panties had melted, he’d taken advantage of her melted-panties state, and they’d woken the next morning and seemed to mutually wait to see what might happen next. Then he’d smiled again, and they’d done it again, and after a while it seemed like they’d been together without actually getting together. By that time, she’d started leaving spare contacts in his medicine cabinet, and he’d been taking advantage of her superior cable package. At that point, it was easier to just stay together than to sort the laundry and figure out whose socks were whose.

Ella held the phone to her ear, fuming. It seemed an insult to wear the dress she had on, as angry as she felt. It was a simple blue sundress, somewhere between classy and playful. A carefree sort of dress that toed the formal wedding line while being slightly above it all. She’d chosen it as carefully as she’d choose something for a client, and had hoped it would tell her mother that she wasn’t taking their being invited to Taylor and Brent’s wedding as anything beyond a frivolous way to spend a late spring afternoon. But her mother had hit her with some sort of an imminent fix-up, and Chase had proven her right by being an even bigger jerk than she already knew he was. Not a good combination.

And now that same, pretty dress was wholly inappropriate. If Ella had been hired to dress herself right now, she’d have chosen something red or black — with spikes and skulls, ideally on fire and reeking with the soured scent of rancid meat.

“You’re such an asshole.”

“Don’t act surprised,” he said.

“I’m not surprised. I was going to break up with you anyway.”

“Were not.”

“Yes, I was.”

“Were not.”

He argued like a ten-year-old. Perhaps she should change tactics and say that she was rubber and he was glue, then elaborate on the bouncing/sticking dynamics involved in such a scenario.

“I’m glad I never gave you a key to my place.” It was the best way, in the moment, Ella could think of to hurt him. But it was woefully inadequate, and he only scoffed.

“What, like, your sister was going to let me ever have a key?”

“She would if I’d insisted.”

“No she wouldn’t. And that’s another thing, Ella. Why do you live with your sister still?”

“To save money? Own something instead of renting, as a good investment?”

“Whatever. I can’t be with someone that insecure.”

That hurt more than he’d probably even intended. A lucky shot, but still Ella felt punched in the gut. She projected secure every day — it was part of her and her mother’s business. But his meaningless jibe about Ella’s living situation with Carly felt like he’d seen through her, down to the way she’d sometimes looked at his beautiful face and body and wondered if he thought he could do better. Which, apparently, he did.

“It’s not insecure to—” Ella began.

“And she doesn’t like me anyway.”

“She doesn’t like you shaving your chest in her bathroom! How is that unreasonable, and—”

“You’re not allowed to bring me over? Whatever, Ella. She’s got a different guy there every night. But I guess that’s just how she deals, right?”

“Leave my sister out of this,” said Ella, her voice turning cold.

“You’ve got issues, Ella.”

“I have issues?”

“Look. I just can’t be with someone who’s so needy. I’m sorry.”

“Needy!”

“Shit, Ella! Don’t even try and deny it. You live with your sister, you’re on me every second, always wanting to know where I am and what I’m up to … ”

“When I don’t hear from you for a week, yes!”

“ … and I know you hate working with your mom, but it’s like with your daddy gone you’ve gotta please her, and … ”

“That is so unfair!” Ella felt her eyes beginning to brim with moisture, but she blinked it furiously away. He wouldn’t make her cry, even angry tears. Not here, with these people watching. “Now you think you know me? Now — now that you’re breaking up with me? And yet you couldn’t figure out why it pissed me off that one time when I’d had a bad day, and your solution was for me to blow you?”

Okay, she’d said that too loud. A crowd was gathering — not a big one, but big enough. She wanted to get away and speak more quietly, but she was pouring her strength into crushing the phone in her grip while sending voodoo death thoughts through the air and into Chase’s panty-melting head.

“You could stand to loosen up, you know,” he said.

“What girl would find that an appropriate way to be comforted?”

“Lots of girls.”

“Like hookers, Chase? Is that what you want — a hooker?”

“Maybe if you’d been a little more, you know, open and not so afraid of being alone, I’d have … ”

“I am not afraid of being alone!”

Chase stopped midsentence, apparently stunned. As stunned as the wedding guests and the string quartet’s violinist.

She turned away.

“I’m breaking up with you,” she hissed into the phone. “You hear me, Chase? This is me kicking you to the curb. You are not good enough for me. You got it?”

“Who is that talking, Ella? You, or your mom?”

Ella actually swung her arm, preparing to whip her phone into the wedding gazebo. But at the last minute she held back, jabbing at the screen to hang up.

She looked up to see a wide circle of staring guests. The minute she glanced outward, every one of them turned instantly, studying their shoes, floral bouquets, or the person beside them.

Ella shoved the phone back into her tiny purse and forced her hands to relax from their fists. She forced her teeth to unclench, and her brow to unfurrow.

Then she brushed a sheaf of light-brown hair out of her face and tucked it behind one ear.

She needed to find the bar.

She didn’t want to think about how deluded and stupid her ex-boyfriend was anymore. Or, conversely, about the surprising way he’d managed to see right through her.

Chapter 3

“Tequila.”

The bartender looked up at Ella, his confusion likely stemming from the fact that he wasn’t the bartender. Not yet. For the time being, he was just an awkward-looking kid standing behind an outdoor counter in a country club uniform with a bunch of booze behind him. After the wedding was over and the reception began, he’d become a purveyor of spirits. But that wasn’t scheduled to happen for a while.

When Ella issued her one-word command, he was kneeling on the floor with a box cutter, opening and stocking bottles of liquid amnesia. Ella wasn’t normally a big drinker, but she’d decided in the last ten minutes to take it up, like tennis.

“It’s rum,” the not-yet-a-bartender kid answered, holding the freshly unboxed bottle.

Ella slapped a ten-dollar bill on the counter. She giggled because it was slightly hilarious. The world had been getting funnier over the past half hour or so, starting with the zinfandel and the champagne from the peeing mermaids, then ramping up when she’d refilled her glass with bubbly after her chat with Chase to see if the stuff could be downed, like a shot. It could be, it turned out, though doing so hurt the brain.

“Then rum it is!” she announced.

“Ma’am,” the kid said, “the bar isn’t open yet. Not until after the ceremony.”

“Isn’t this a free country?”

The kid looked up at her.

“Well, isn’t it?” She wasn’t leaving without an answer. Fuck these kids today and their lack of patriotism.

“Um … ”

“Damn right it is. Now, I’d like a cup of rum.”

“Ma’am … ”

“Stop calling me that.” Ella shook her bubble-injured brain. “How old are you anyway?”

“Twenty-one, ma’am.”

“I’m just six years older than you. Would you say I’m running out of time?”

“I think the ceremony begins in —” He checked his watch, and Ella felt a strong urge to point out that he, not she, was living in the past if he wore a watch. “— about ten minutes. You’ll have plenty of time to find a seat. Although if you want to find two together —” He craned his neck toward the crowd assembling further down the lawn. “— you may want to do it now.”

“Why do I need two together?” Ella demanded. “How do you know I’m not here by myself? What, you think I have some jerk boyfriend who would make me come with my mom, then break up with me by text?”

“Um … ”

She slapped the bill on the counter again. “Tequila!”

“I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“What if I’m just thirsty?” she demanded.

A voice came from behind her. “Kid, just be nice, and give the lady what she wants. And one of the same for me, too.”

Ella turned. Behind her, sitting at a table in a small hedge-hidden alcove, was the most handsome man on the planet. She’d had no idea he existed, but now the proof was right there in front of her.

Ella made herself stand tall. She really wasn’t drunk. She was on the edge, looking drunk in the eye and challenging it to an arm-wrestling match, playing into the delightful buzz she felt covering everything she could see, hear, and touch. It was more like Ella was drunk in advance, playing into it like an actor warming up for a part. For now, she could still go either way: surrendering to drunk’s superior force and letting it have its way with her. Or maybe she could push it back and be a respectable lady so that this nice young man would take her into a bush and ravage her. Maybe he hadn’t even heard her just now, demanding liquor like an addict staring at a needle.

The bartender looked at the gorgeous man, took in his tuxedo, then turned back to Ella with a freshened expression. This beautiful specimen was apparently part of one of the wedding families. Or he was rich. Either way, he had some sort of power over bartenders.

“I’ll have a fuzzy navel,” Ella said, giving the kid a vindicated stare.

The bartender looked at the planet’s most dashing man to see if he still wanted one of whatever the lady ordered. He shrugged.

Ella stood facing the man, assessing. He was beautiful, yes, but tucked into this tiny alcove. What was he hiding from? He might be a creep. This was how things started with Chase. Being pretty, he’d merely had to imply she was pretty enough back then (before she’d become an old woman at twenty-seven) and that he found her acceptable.

Look how that had turned out.

“You don’t have to drink with me,” the man said. “I just wanted to help you out.”

“What’s in it for you?”

“Just being nice.”

Ella nodded. Okay, maybe she was a little drunk. Just a little. She pulled out the chair opposite him and sat. The bartender, relegated to being a waiter, brought the drinks around. He’d put pink umbrellas in both.

“I’ve never had one of these,” said the man across from her. “What’s in it?”

“Orange juice and peach schnapps.”

“Okay, good. So juice and juice.”

“Juice and schnapps.”

“No alcohol, I meant.”

“It has schnapps.”

He took a drink. “I guess male alcohol humor isn’t going to work on you. I was implying that you’re not very tough in ordering such a girly drink. Lesson learned; such implications are lost on women.”

This struck Ella as a personal failing for some reason. “Oh. Sorry.”

But Ella didn’t know why she was apologizing. It might have had something to do with the man’s carelessly tousled light-brown hair and charming cornflower-blue eyes. She wanted to reach out and see if his hair was as soft as it looked. Instead, she invoked restraint and drank half of her Fuzzy Navel in one long pull.

“It’s fine,” he told her. “You were making more manly demands up there.” He nodded toward the bar, where the bartender had again disappeared from sight. Good. They were alone. That meant that if the opportunity for kissing emerged from the blue, they could do it. Best to be prepared.

“What?” she said, now brushing her own hair behind one ear.

“Tequila. I saw you trying to get him to give you a drink, remember?”

Ella felt herself blush. She pushed the tipsy feeling down, but it must have been buoyant because it popped right back up.

“I had a rough day,” she said.

His mouth formed a noncommittal line. His eyebrows jumped a little, and his blue eyes looked where she’d come from. Where she’d had her public conversation with that asshole she used to date.

“I saw that, too,” he said.

“So, what, you’re here to pick up the leftovers? Catch me on the rebound?”

He shrugged. “I’m just taking a moment.”

Ella watched him for a minute, trying to decide if she was experiencing a rather inappropriate and un-Ella-like wave of lust or if she didn’t like this strange man at all. It was one of the two, or maybe both. He already struck her as cocky. Who did he think he was, up here in his fancy tux, with one leg crossed over the other, jacket off, white sleeves rolled up to reveal tanned forearms with light fuzz and subtle striations in the muscles that would, now that she thought about it, look particularly good beaded with perspiration, like if he were digging a ditch or carrying her somewhere to lie down in the grass.

“Who are you?” she said.

He extended a hand. Ella took it, wondering for a second if he might try and take hers to kiss it. Because that made sense.

Instead, he shook it.

“Nathan Hayes.”

“Hayes?” This was the Hayes wedding. Maybe that explained his ability to make bartenders obey his every whim.

“I’m Brent Hayes’s cousin. And his third groomsman.”

“You’re in the wedding?” For some reason, that excited Ella. Did she have a wedding fetish? Whatever, she was drunk.

Nathan nodded. It was a self-assured nod. Ella couldn’t have said why, but it was very clearly the nod of a man who usually got what he wanted. That simple movement somehow radiated confidence. She’d only asked him if he was in the wedding, but it was the same nod he’d give in a business negotiation, Ella felt certain. The nod said that he was who he was and wanted what he wanted. Anyone who had a problem with that could fuck off because he was just going to keep sitting here, nodding like a sexy beast either way.

“And who are you?”

“Ella.”

“Well. It’s nice to meet you, Ella.”

He gave her a smile that could have meant one of two things. He was either pleased to meet her, or he wanted to slip his hand up her dress.

Ella drank more of her fuzzy navel, thinking there might be more alcohol in it than Nathan was allowing.

“What do you do for a living, Ella?”

He was still leaning back, exactly like a man who wanted to feel her boobs.

“I broke up with him, you know.”

“Sorry?”

“Back there. I just needed to get some closure.”

“Back where?”

Shit.

Maybe she’d misunderstood. Maybe he hadn’t witnessed her little meltdown after all. Maybe he’d just seen her walking around, looking all hot and elegant, and had been wanting to talk to her, and now she was screwing it up. Ella felt a strong desire to check out his ring finger. There was nothing on it and no indentation where a ring might have been removed — say, by an asshole looking to score women at a wedding behind his wife’s back. But there was nothing, and that meant he was a gentleman. The logic all worked.

“It’s warm today, isn’t it?” she said, fanning herself with a hand.

“Not really?”

“It was warm yesterday.”

“I guess?”

Why was he ending everything with a question mark? Maybe she was boring him. Time to turn it on.

Ella sat back and crossed her legs, being sure to let her dress creep up a bit. But then she realized he’d be able to see the spot where she’d run into that old woman’s walker as she’d stormed up here, and it was already starting to purple.

She crossed her legs the other way and flashed a flirtatious smile.

“A personal stylist,” she said.

“What about it?”

“You asked what I do for a living.”

“Oh.” He seemed to need a reset, as if she’d answered a question from several exchanges ago and hadn’t understood at first. “That sounds interesting.”

“I work for my mom’s company.”

“I work for my dad’s. It’s nice to keep things in the family.”

“Sure. My mom’s awesome. But she can also be an insufferable pain in the ass. You know how moms are.”

“Oh. Well, do you not want to work for her anymore?”

“I’m going to start my own company.”

“Doing what?”

“Matching clients with their ideal personal stylists.” She sat up straight, in a way that made her cleavage stand out, and whispered seductively, “My company is going to be called Stitches.”

He kind of lunged forward a little as she said it. Then he sat back.

“What?”

“Nothing,” he said.

“What?” Ella repeated.

“It just looked like you might throw up a little bit there.”

So much for sexy and flirtatious. “I’m pretty tired,” Ella said by way of explanation.

“Well, so why don’t you?”

“Throw up? Because I’m not sick.”

“No, I mean, why don’t you start your company.”

“I kind of already have. I’ve got the paperwork and stuff. I’ve done some moonlighting to try it out. But don’t tell my mom, okay?”

“Who’s your mom?”

Ella winked. “Exactly.” 

Nathan looked confused, but then said, “So you just need the money to get it going then?”

“No, I have a good chunk of change already saved.”

“Oh. But this is your dream?” He made small erasing motions with his hands. “Wait. I guess you didn’t say it’s your dream.”

“No, no, it’s my dream. I have dreams, you know.”

“So … ”

“So what?” she said.

He shrugged, possibly wondering if Ella was mentally defective. Wow, she was really screwing this up. He was hanging in there for now, but pretty soon he’d start checking the clock and commenting on how time was flying, how this had been fun and that she might want to stay at least fifty feet from him at all times from now on.

Ella reached out and touched his hand. “What about you? What do you do?”

“I have an app company.”

“Oh!” she said. “I have a lot of apps.”

“Do you have APPacity?”

“No.”

“LaborPains?”

“No. Are they games?”

“APPacity allows you to donate your phone’s unused processing power, while you’re connected to Wi-Fi, to a parallel processing grid shared by others who’ve chosen the same charitable cause as you. So you might donate that computing power, while you’re not using it, to cancer research or AIDS or finding lost children or any number of other causes.”

“Oh. No. I don’t have that. Does it cost anything?” It was a shallow-sounding question but the best Ella could do.

“It’s free. But fair warning, you’ll go through a charge faster since your phone won’t sleep as much.”

“Oh. Well, I have a travel charger.”

Nathan was still leaning back in his chair. Had his bow tie always been loose enough for her to see his open shirt collar behind it? She could just spot the edges of his collarbones. She wondered if they ended in strong shoulders. Looked that way.

He was smiling at her, apparently amused, still leaning back, now taking another sip of his yellow drink with its pink umbrella. Ella considered being put off by the superior way he seemed to have taken charge of this conversation — not to mention the way his smirk was almost condescending, as if she were here for his amusement.

Or maybe he just liked her.

Yes, that seemed possible.

Ella wasn’t going to count on it, but he seemed to be smiling with his whole face, not just mechanically with his mouth. And those light-blue eyes, she thought, kept dropping to her cleavage, to her crossed legs, bare from shoes to hem. Maybe he was thinking of reaching out to cup her calf, then running his big, strong hand up higher until she told him to stop. Which she’d have to eventually because she was a good girl and presumptuous guys turned her off. But self-assured guys, on the other hand, tended to turn her on. There was a fine line between the two.

There was a buzzing noise. Nathan jumped a little then reached into his pocket. He pulled out his phone, looked at the screen, and replaced the phone and began to compose himself: buttoning his collar, tightening his tux’s bow tie, rolling down his sleeves. He’d taken off a set of black cuff links and placed them on the table. Ella wondered if he’d considered what those cuff links would look like on the nightstand in her bedroom.

He stood.

“I’m sorry. That was my dad. He’s been texting me for a while and I’ve been ignoring him.”

“Oh,” said Ella.

“The wedding is about to start. They’re one groomsman short. That’s me.”

“Oh.”

“Thanks for joining me for a drink, Ella. And good luck with your business. If there’s one thing I’ve learned with mine, it’s that you just have to be bold at some point. Take the leap, you know?”

“Sure.” She’d apparently run out of words. Dammit — used them all, and now down to monosyllables. She stood, feeling foolish watching him get dressed from down low. She needed a better vantage point.

“Maybe I’ll see you at the reception,” he said.

Ella found the courage to smile. To her surprise, it came naturally. She met his eyes and felt herself soothed. Melting into them. Comforted. She’d had problems a few minutes ago, she seemed to remember. But those ancient issues were all gone now.

“I hope so,” she said.

He squeezed her hand before darting down the lawn, double time. Toward the wedding.

She hadn’t really wanted to be here. Not at all.

But now, as Ella watched Nathan Hayes hoof it toward the gazebo, she really, truly did.

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About JP Howle

JP Howle (or Jacob, as his friends call him) helps Sterling & Stone with admin work and other behind-the-scenes stuff. He lives in Mexico and his favorite word is chalupa.

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