Sample Chapters of Chasing Clouds.
EVERY LITTLE GIRL dreams of her wedding, that one magical day with endless arrangements of sweet-smelling flowers, family and friends, and a big white dress with a skirt so gauzy and beautiful it’s meant to be twirled in, as if she were a princess. Music will play, birds will sing, and at the end of the aisle will wait a tall, dark, and handsome man who is so in love with her he’ll have tears shining in his eyes.
That’s the dream, right?
After all these years, my dream has become my reality, and today is the day.
Today is my wedding day.
A cool breeze drifts across the bare skin of my shoulders, I shiver, and goose bumps race down my arms. My eyes flick to the left, where one of the side entrance doors to the church was left open, letting in the southern February winds. The sunlight from beyond the door looks luminous and inviting, unlike in here, which is cloaked in darkness and shadows. The foyer is empty and still, with only the sounds of the organ playing from behind the two white wooden doors that will soon open and forever cement my fate.
I spent most of the morning quietly by myself, which is how I wanted it. No one understands—how can they? This is supposed to be the happiest day of my life, but what they don’t realize is . . . it’s not.
I take a deep breath and let my eyes fall shut. The smell of pine wood fills my senses, reminding me just how old the church is and what my getting married here means to my family. Built in the mid-1700s, it’s one of the oldest churches in Savannah, and for more generations than I care to remember, my family has celebrated births, marriages, and the passing of life here within these walls. Just like all the other expectations bestowed upon me, there was never a question about where I would be married, just to whom.
Well, maybe not even that. Patrick has been their choice for years, and they slowly groomed him to understand what it means to be part of the Whitley family in Georgia as they pushed him my and Clare’s way.
Swaying my hips back and forth with the distant weight of hundreds of ancestors’ eyes, I focus on the rustling of my skirt as it swishes around me, the boards groaning under my feet.
“You don’t have to do this.”
Startled by her voice suddenly breaking the silence, my head shoots up and my eyes lock onto Clare’s. The concern and worry etched in her expression and the tension in her posture pull on my heartstrings. Even with as close as we are, she’s another person who doesn’t understand. I do have to do this.
“Yes, I do.”
“No, Camille.” She shakes her head frantically and takes a step toward me as my eyes sweep down over her and the pale blue strapless bridesmaid dress she wears. She’s so beautiful, just like I knew she would be, and I feel the sting of the tears welling in my eyes. “I don’t want this for you. This is not the life you were meant to have.”
Letting out a deep breath, I reach for her hand and squeeze. A warm buzz tingles my fingers, and it’s so familiar and comforting I find the strength I need to continue—to not walk away. She has to see that I’m doing this for her . . . for us, two halves of a whole that split apart and became the mirror image of the other.
“You’re the one who always says our destiny is written in the stars.” I smile at her. “This is my destiny.”
“And you always respond that the stars don’t move, we do. Therefore, you could just walk away. I’m begging you to please walk away. You’ll never be happy with him.”
“It’s not about being happy, you know that. It’s about being loyal to our family and doing our duty. We all play a role, we always have, and it’s time I step into mine.”
Her frown deepens, and her shoulders sag forward. She’s making me feel as if I’m letting her down, when the truth is I owe her this.
“Camille, this moral responsibility to our family is not you. It never has been, and there’s a difference between loyalty and being coerced. Please, I’m begging you, don’t marry him.”
Before I can respond, the organ stops, and Clare’s hand tightens around mine. The panic that fills her flows into me, and my heart starts racing as I think about her words. She thinks I’m being coerced? That’s the same as being bullied or threatened—is that how other people see it, too? With our eyes locked onto each other, she parts her lips as if to say something . . . but then the doors sweep open and she drops my hand.
My fingers instantly cool and my ears burn to hear her unspoken words. What was she going to say? I need to know!
Her chin trembles, but she pastes on a smile as she slowly turns and walks down the aisle.
“Please—wait,” I whisper.
She hears the pleading in my voice and glances back but doesn’t say anything else. The muscles in her face suddenly relax, her concerned eyes seem to warm, and for the first time ever I’m unable to decipher her thoughts. Her expression has done a complete one-eighty, and she looks almost happy, content. Given the conversation we just had, I don’t understand. I’m confused.
What just happened?
Does she know something I don’t?
With a wink and a small smile, she turns around and walks forward. I follow, stepping into a scene that’s my childhood dream brought to life.
The foyer is no longer drafty and dark. Golden light is pouring in through the stained glass windows that line the perimeter of the church, illuminating it and making it almost magical. The air is delicious with scents of honeysuckle, orange blossoms, and roses, and the classical melody of Mendelssohn slowly makes its way past the thrumming of my heart. The string quartet, the flowers, the candles . . . all of it is just so beautiful.
“Camille, it’s time.”
I tear my eyes from the sight before me and see my father standing next to the last pew with his hand outstretched. The magic of the moment fades away as I realize the beauty is only surface deep, and this wedding isn’t what I’ve dreamed about. It’s for show, not for love. His face doesn’t shine with adoration and happiness for his daughter on her wedding day; it’s full of arrogance. He’s not smiling, but his lip is curled in a way that appears more like a sneer, and it’s this tiny expression that reminds me I’m just a pawn for others to move as they please. My heart sinks.
Maybe Clare is right. Maybe my loyalties to my family are misguided. Being loyal implies the presence of support, trustworthiness, and faithfulness, but not a single family member reciprocates those things to me. Instead, they antagonize, lie, and boss me around.
Not wanting to waste any more time, my father walks over to me, wraps his arm around mine, and pulls. As if on autopilot, I let him lead me down the aisle. I was at peace with my decision, but now, after one conversation, I feel like this might just be my death march.
The entire church is packed, both sides of the sanctuary and the upper balcony filled to the brim. Along with the ghosts of my ancestors, I can feel every set of eyes on me. The weight of judgment falls upon my back and shoulders, and although some look happy for me and are probably thinking, She looks so beautiful, I know others are mocking me behind fictitious smiles.
From left to right, up, down, and all around, I’m assaulted by a stampede of emotions. Panic becomes the strongest, and then nausea sets in.
“I’m proud of you, sweetheart,” my father says just loud enough for others to hear as he squeezes my trembling hand. Maybe he is, or maybe he isn’t; I don’t know. I lost the ability to really believe anything he says five years ago. What I wouldn’t give right this moment to have the man in my memories and not the man currently walking me down the aisle.
Patrick moves into my line of sight. Terror streaks through my body, and the crowd becomes a blur. He isn’t exactly smiling—more like smirking—and my legs begin to shake.
Feeling the change in my steps, my father wraps his arm around my waist to steady me, and my breathing picks up. The air won’t come in fast enough, and my lungs feel as if they’re on fire. Squeezing the bouquet, I pull it against my chest and press as hard as I can.
Can’t people see there’s something wrong with me? Can’t they see this isn’t normal bride behavior? But then again, I’ve never been one for crowds, and they must think it’s just nerves.
Sliding my eyes off Patrick, I find Ali, my best friend from New York, and Brittany, my cousin. Ali’s eyes are sad, and she’s smiling at me in a way that screams pity. Brittany isn’t smiling at all—she’s crying. It’s then I realize I’m crying, too.
Moving my gaze back to Patrick, he sees the tears, and his expression falls.
For months I’ve been telling myself I can do this. I know how to do it. I was born and raised in this life, and I really don’t know any other. That doesn’t mean I don’t secretly want more, the thing every girl dreams about—true love—but right now, right this moment, looking into Patrick’s eyes, I feel nothing but fear. This can’t be all there is for me, can it?
I do deserve more, don’t I?
Then I remember.
I remember the real reason I’m here, and regret sinks in.
I know why. He knows why. Hell, everyone in this room probably does. And, here I am.
With his eyes locked on mine, his carefully constructed wall slips, and staring back at me is the boy I’ve known most of my life. Before all of this—the expectations, the planning, the political aspirations, the lying—we were friends, and underneath it all, even after all of this, he still wishes I were someone else, and he knows I desperately want to be anywhere else but here.
As my father and I reach the end of the aisle, the strings stop, and a deafening silence blankets the inside of the church. Patrick and I continue to stare at each other, lengthening the moment until my father clears his throat. This is his way of letting us know it’s time, and Patrick’s eyes slide from me to him as if commanded. The muscles around his eyes tighten as the two men communicate nonverbally, and I watch Patrick’s wall re-erect as he slips into the role he’s meant to play. His lips twitch at one corner, the telltale sign of a smirk, and just like that, whatever emotional moment we were having is over. He smells victory for the one thing he wants most in his life—his career.
“Who gives this woman to this man in marriage?” the minister calls out.
“Her mother and I do,” my father says.
Turning me to face him, he gently lifts my veil, kisses my cheek, and then returns the sheer curtain to its proper place. He avoids making eye contact, and given our opposing stances on this marriage, I understand why.
Stepping toward Patrick, my father shakes his hand and then places my right hand in his left. Patrick’s hand is cold, and I find this fitting since he’s become so coldhearted and disconnected. A shiver runs through me.
My soon-to-be husband leads me up the steps to the altar. Ali reaches over for my bouquet, my other bridesmaids fluff out the back of my dress, and we come to stand in front of the minister.
“Please be seated.”
There is a soft chorus of clothes rustling behind us, but not a single person says a word. Brittany sniffles from over on my left, and Patrick’s grip on my hand tightens.
“Dear friends and family, we are gathered here today to celebrate the union of Patrick Easton Walker and Camille Odette Whitley in marriage. Over the years, these two have built a friendship and a commitment to each other that grew, matured, and eventually turned into love. Today, they have decided to create a new bond together, a new sense of family as they become husband and wife. If any of you has reason why these two should not be married, speak now or forever hold your peace.”
Silence fills the sanctuary, and it’s at that moment I realize this is truly wrong and I desperately don’t want it. I thought I could do it. I thought I’d come to terms with the situation and could be loyal to my family, but as the lump in my throat grows larger, I know I can’t. Waves of panic crash into me, each one stronger than the last, and my heart pounds so hard it’s as if it’s trying to beat right out of my chest. The fallout will be excruciating and irreparable, but that’s a chance I’m willing to take.
I don’t want to get married to him. In fact, I don’t want to get married at all.
Looking for a way out, I glance around the altar toward both of the side doors. Patrick pulls on my hand to grab my attention, and his dark eyes sharpen just enough to tell me he’s onto me. His fingers tighten around mine even more, as if his hold alone could keep me from fleeing, and his whole body tenses. There’s a warning in his stare, and it causes me to pause. An unprecedented feeling courses through me: fear. I’m afraid for more reasons than I can count.
The minister flips a page in his book, and the silence that follows seems to stretch for years. Is this extra time my chance? Am I being given one? Can I walk away? My eyes again shift to the side door, and I can’t help but wonder how many steps there are from the altar to freedom. If I took this chance, would anyone try to stop me? Or would they let me go?
Oh, who am I kidding . . . I can’t leave.
My eyes blur and with each passing heartbeat, I know my opportunity is slipping away, and Patrick is one step closer to succeeding in this. When I try to pull my hand from his, he just holds on tighter, sending pain shooting through my fingers. I stop breathing, waiting for the guillotine to fall, and he holds his breath with sweet anticipation.
“I do,” says a male voice, the words echoing from the back of the church.
Shock reverberates through me like lightning striking, but it quickly dissipates as I exhale slowly, feeling nothing but relief.
Instant, all-consuming relief.
The noose around my neck unravels as my body experiences a visceral reaction to those two words, and I suck in new air, fresh air that tastes a lot like hope.
A collective gasp from those in attendance zips around the sanctuary and seems to pull the air, along with my attention, toward them. Whispers and movements begin as people turn in different directions, looking for the speaker. It’s then that, from the back of the room, the man behind the voice steps out into the aisle.
Slowly, he begins to make his way toward us with his eyes locked on mine, and my breath catches. He’s incredibly handsome.
Patrick’s hand moves off mine and to my wrist as I face the beautiful stranger and watch him approach.
Do I know him? I don’t think so. He looks familiar, but it’s a vague recollection, as if I may know someone who looks like him but not this man specifically. He has olive skin, a shade on the darker side; dark hair, short on the sides but longer on top; and pale green eyes that make me feel certain I’ve never seen him before, because I would remember a gaze as striking as his.
“This has to be a joke,” Patrick spits out as the man comes to a stop at the bottom of the steps.
“I can assure you it’s not,” he says, the light color in his eyes darkening to an emerald hue as he continues to hold my gaze.
I don’t know where he came from or who he is, but right now I don’t care. Relief washes over me. I just know this is a sign, and I’m being given a second chance. My skin tingles as I jerk my arm out of Patrick’s grasp and start grinning.
“Sir, what objections do you have to this marriage?” the minister asks, looking confused, his gaze bouncing between the three of us. Neither Patrick nor I turn to acknowledge him. Instead, we both stay locked onto the unexpected guest. I don’t know him, and it doesn’t appear that Patrick does, either. So, who is he?
“You can’t marry him,” he says, his voice deep and confident, his regard intense. I don’t understand what is happening, even though I feel like I should.
I don’t respond—I don’t know how to. All I can do is return his stare.
“I love you. Marry me.”
A laugh bubbles out of me, and his eyes smile back with a mischievous glint at my obvious amusement.
This is absurd!
The murmurs through the crowd pick up in volume. Patrick says something to someone—presumably my father—but all I hear in my head is, I love you, and the more I repeat it, the more the voice sounds familiar. I’ve heard it before, but I can’t place where.
“Look, pal, I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing here, but I think it’s best if you leave,” Patrick says as he moves to stand in front of me, shielding me from the mystery man’s view. I quickly step around him and move down two steps to put myself at eye level with the beautiful stranger.
That’s what he is—a beautiful stranger.
“Camille,” he whispers, reaching for my hands. His hands are warm, solid, dotted with calluses and coiled with a strength like I’ve never felt before. He looks down at our entwined fingers, and his thumb rubs across the white line where my engagement ring usually sits.
I nervously glance at Patrick then find my way back to eyes so green they warm me like the sun on a long summer day. This guy looks nothing like Patrick. Patrick is tall, lean, fair, and wearing a classic black tuxedo, whereas the beautiful stranger is taller, layered with thick muscles, and wearing a charcoal suit that looks expensive and perfect on him.
“Camille, this is insane. You can’t possibly be considering this!” Patrick stammers, pulling one hand back to him and clinging to it like a life vest.
When the stranger tugs on my other hand, my eyes return to him, and butterflies take flight within me. “It’s time to make that move,” he says, and a gasp slips through my lips as my eyes widen.
That phrase . . .
The voice . . .
A flush burns in my cheeks as I absorb and memorize the details of his face for the first time. His lips tip up into a lopsided grin, and my eyes are drawn to how full and pink they are. I dreamed about these lips last night, and by the way his eyes smolder at me, he knows exactly what I’m thinking about . . . and he’s pleased.
“Ms. Whitley,” the minister calls out, and I force myself to look at him. “Are we going to have a wedding today?” he asks calmly. “And if so, with whom?”
I turn to Patrick, whose eyes are wild and frantic with fear. It’s not a fear of losing me—well, maybe a little—but I think it’s more a fear of this hurting his political dreams. I know marrying him is the safe choice, the choice that was made for me, and that’s the reason I’m wavering. We’ve known each other a long time. He’ll take care of me, provide for me, and I’m certain we’ll do great things together. I love Patrick, I do; I’m just not in love with him. Regardless of our relationship recently, I never want to hurt him, but is all this enough? I don’t know.
I turn to the man with the most alluring green eyes, and I see not only an escape, but also an opportunity—an escape from a life I’ve felt chained to for the last five years, and an opportunity for a different path . . . a life I’ve only dreamed of and never really thought was in reach. Maybe it was there all along. Maybe I just need to stand up for myself a little bit more, or maybe my whole life has been leading up to this moment.
Is it a risk? Yes.
Is it a gamble? Yes.
Am I okay with strapping enough scandal to our family name to last for generations? I don’t know.
Then, just past his shoulder, I see Clare standing in the aisle watching us. My heart rate slows, and I find comfort in just the sight of her. Without her even having to say the words, I know she’ll stand behind whatever decision I make, even if my decision is neither of the two men—but is that what I want, to walk out of here? Even if I did, I’m not sure I’d find myself in a different place. Patrick and my father would chase me down and demand a redo. Am I strong enough to stand up to them? I don’t know. It’s been a long time since I tried.
What I do know is that ten minutes ago I was suffocating, and now I can breathe. I’m certain that whatever I choose in the next minute or so, I’m forever cementing or changing the course of my life, and I’m surprisingly okay with it.
“Camille, have you decided?” the minister pushes, and I briefly close my eyes, gathering myself.
Taking a deep breath, I drop both their hands and turn to face him. A smile splits across my face and I stand a little taller as I answer.
The day before
SLOWING DOWN, I pull up to the entrance of the plantation, glancing again at the navigation screen and Nate’s text to make sure I’m in the right place. In front of me is a sprawling wrought iron gate with the name Whitley scripted into it, and there’s a guard house just before manned by four police officers, two standing on each side.
As I roll down the window, a cool earthy breeze fills the inside of the car, reminding me I’m no longer in Tampa, and one of the officers approaches. He doesn’t smile or frown, his demeanor neutral, but there’s something about an officer walking toward you, no matter where you are or what you’re doing, that’s unsettling.
“Evening, sir, how can I help you?” He leans over to get a better view of me.
I look away from him and down the long oak-canopied driveway. For a split second, I wonder what the hell I’m doing here, and then remember I promised Nate, my younger brother, I would come see him.
“I’m here for the rehearsal dinner and the wedding,” I say, looking back at him and forcing myself not to stutter or shiver on the last word.
“Identification, please.” He holds out his hand.
Reaching into the center console, I grab my wallet and pull out my driver’s license. When he takes it from me, my fingers tighten around the steering wheel. Growing up where I did, it was never a good thing when cops were involved, and although this is a completely different situation, old memories stir up old feelings, and some things never change.
The radio of one of the officers crackles and a garbled voice comes through. I don’t understand what the person is saying, but it’s enough to make my already agitated nerves even more jumpy.
The thing is, in addition to hating cops, I also hate weddings. Just the word alone makes me want to turn around and drive the other way. I’ll never understand why people feel the need to legally attach themselves to someone else. Don’t get me wrong, I love relationships—the kind that are easygoing, free of expectations, and filled with hours of endless fun. Why anyone wants to give that up for a joint bank account and shared bills, I’ll never understand.
Watching the cop, I see his eyebrows rise in surprise and his eyes flicker back to me. He recognizes my name, and his gaze quickly travels over me and my car for confirmation before typing something on the iPad he’s holding. This is crazy. Where am I, and who are these people that they need this type of security?
Nate called three days ago to tell me he was flying from New York City to Savannah for a wedding. His friend apparently surprised him last minute with a plane ticket, so when he asked me if I would drive up and be his plus one, I didn’t hesitate in saying yes. Savannah is only five and a half hours from Tampa at the most, an easy drive, but what he didn’t tell me is that this friend who’s getting married appears to be some kind of Southern royalty.
Grabbing my phone, I shoot Nate a text, and he replies almost immediately.
Me: Meet me out front in 5, at the gate.
“All right, sir, you’re all set.” He hands me back my license. “If you’ll just follow the drive about a mile down, an attendant will be there to assist you with overnight parking.”
I nod, roll up the window, and begin to drive forward as the gate swings open.
Large oaks line the driveway. They’re beautiful but covered with moss, making the canopy thick and dense. Sunlight streaks through the branches here and there, but since it’s late afternoon, the drive is mostly dark and creepy. I should have asked who this friend of Nate’s is, but I was so excited at the possibility of seeing him, the details were unimportant.
As the trees begin to fade away, a massive white mansion comes into view.
“Holy shit, I’ve entered the Deep South twilight zone,” I mumble to myself.
There are huge white columns running the three levels of the structure, each of which has a wraparound porch. Aside from the massive double front door, there are several sets of French doors on each level leading out to perfectly placed rocking chairs. The lawn is manicured, the interior is lit up, and it couldn’t look any more different from where Nate and I grew up if it tried.
I spot the parking attendant at the fork in the driveway, and he uses a lighted wand to direct me to the right toward a building that looks like a stable but is actually a garage.
I stop next to the valet and climb out of the car. My nose scrunches at the smell of the nearby paper mill faintly lingering in the air.
“Good evening, Mr. Jackson.” The valet tucks another iPad under his arm and hands me a ticket. “What would you like brought to your room?”
“There’s a bag in the back seat.”
He smiles and moves toward my open door. “Perfect. You’re staying in the Magnolia room, and when you’re ready to retire for the evening, someone will direct you.”
“Thank you.” I nod to him and shove the ticket into my pocket. Magnolia room—is that meant to be cute or cliché? I can’t decide.
Following a lighted path, I’m walking toward the front steps when Nate comes strolling out, and his face splits in half with the biggest grin when he sees me. Man, I love this kid, no matter how old he gets.
“Bro!” He skips down the steps, meets me in the circular drive, and throws his arms around me. “Thank you so much for coming.”
“Of course.” I pat him on the back and give him a once-over. He’s muscled up even more since I last saw him over the holidays. “I’d never pass up an opportunity to see you! Especially when you’re so close. You’re sure your friend is cool with me being here?” I look past him at the grand double doors. We sure are a long way from the Bronx.
“Absolutely. Wait till you meet her—she’s awesome.” He slaps me on the back as we enter the home, and I can’t help but eye him suspiciously.
His gait slows and he pins me with a fierce scowl. “No, dude. It’s not like that—at all.”
“Whatever you say.” I chuckle and he rolls his eyes.
Quickly, we walk through to the back of the house and out onto a terrace that overlooks a large lawn completely decked out for a party. There are large white tents, tables scattered about, and waiters wearing black tie attire walking around with drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Beyond that are acres and acres of rolling fields with more sprawling oaks.
The buzz of people talking and a five-piece band playing in the background slowly distract me from the sheer awe I feel of this place. I glance at Nate and he smirks.
“It’s nice here, right?” he asks me.
“I feel like I’ve been transported to the set of an old Southern movie. Jesus, Nate, what do these people do for living?”
“Camille, my friend who’s getting married, is the daughter of one of the current senators for the state of Georgia.”
“You’re kidding, right?” I glance at him and then back at the crowd. Georgia is predominantly a red state, and looking around, Nate and I definitely stand out as the minority with our darker olive skin.
He shakes his head and grins.
“How in the hell did you become friends with a Southern Republican socialite?”
“You know my buddy, Beau? His sister-in-law—well, future sister-in-law—dances with her. They’re friends, he and I are friends, and we just kind of ended up in the same circle.” He shoves his hands into his pockets and shrugs his shoulders.
Last year, Nate headed off to Columbia on a tennis scholarship, and Beau was on the team with him before he decided to go pro. I met him once, but I never met any of his other friends.
“Hold up.” I lean in closer to him and lower my voice. “She’s a dancer?”
Nate busts out laughing and shoves me in the arm. “Not that kind of dancer! She’s a ballet student at Juilliard.”
“Juilliard,” I mumble.
Nate is five years younger than me. Right after I signed my letter of intent to play football at Syracuse University, I took Nate around to the different colleges in and near New York City, wanting to show him what life was like outside of the Bronx. I wanted him to see opportunities for another life, a better life. All he had to do was pick one thing and work hard at it, every day. When we stopped at Juilliard, he asked me if I had ever dated a girl who looked like the ones we saw there, and I said, “Not yet, but one day we both will.” Of course it was meant to be symbolic, but as I look at him now, I really take him in.
Fingering the sleeve of his suit coat, I smile. “You’re moving up in the world, kid. Looks good on you.”
“Yeah, feels good, too—but hey, so are you. I bet that new five-year contract with the Tarpons looks real pretty in your bank account.” He laughs, but I have to agree with him; it really does.
“So, who all is here with you?” I glance around, searching for a group his age but seeing mostly older people.
“From the city, it’s Beau, Leila, Ali, Drew, and Charlie.” He points toward the bar at the back left.
“Charlie—that name rings a bell.”
Nate’s eyes light up and he laughs. “You’ve signed some things for him before.”
“Oh, yeah. He’s your friend who’s like a super fan?”
“You could say that, and he’s the dude walking this way now.”
I glance over and see a tall lanky guy speed walking toward us, wearing a seersucker suit and a pink shirt, grinning from ear to ear. “Get prepared, he’s really excited to meet you.”
A groan rumbles out of my chest as I frown at Nate. “Then our first stop needs to be the bar.”
Three hours pass and more people have recognized me than I expected would. It happens everywhere I go and I understand it’s par for the course, but here at a wedding in a different state, I just wanted to spend some time with my brother and not be bothered by people wanting to get autographs and talk football all night. Kill me.
Desperately needing a moment of silence, I wander back into the house and dip into a dark empty room. I think it’s a library or a sitting room, but with houses like this, who knows.
Over and over, I was asked why I’m here and who I’m friends with. Not wanting to look like a wedding crasher, I repeated that I knew the bride, saying we’d met in New York City and hoping she’d just agree with my story if approached. After all, Nate did say she said it was okay for me to come.
Moving over to one of the bay windows, I look out across the party and search for the bride. Nate pointed her out not too long after I arrived, but she was busy being social and playing the part of bride-to-be, so she never made it over to us. I hate to admit it, but I’ve watched her throughout the night more than I should have. She’s not the type of girl I typically go for, way too proper and fancy, but there’s something about her that kept drawing my eye. Maybe it’s because she’s strikingly beautiful with her white blonde hair and porcelain doll face, or maybe it’s because if you look long enough, it’s easy to see she hates every minute of this.
I first noticed the unease through her repetition: smile, stiff hug, clasp hands in front of her, repeat. With each passing person, she’d tuck her hair behind her ear, even if it was already there, and the charade would start all over. Not one of her conversations appeared genuine, and a few times, she looked downright sad and uncomfortable.
Then again, if I had to stand next to that inattentive dick she’s been with all night, I’d be sad too. For a dude about to get married, he certainly didn’t strike me as gushing with love for his bride-to-be, but then again, what do I know. I’m never getting married.
Behind me, the door opens, quickly closes, and giggling hits my ears.
Great. Just great.
“Shh, you don’t want anyone to hear us, now do you?” asks a male voice.
“Maybe I do,” a girl replies, a little louder than I’m sure this guy wants.
There’s a brief pause and then she moans.
This. Is. Not. Happening. I scowl.
Glancing through the darkness, I try to get a glimpse of who might be in here, but from where I’m sitting, it’s just too far. I can see them, but not a whole lot of their details.
“Britt, we’ve talked about this. You know this is it, this is all I can give you, so why don’t you just stay quiet for a few minutes and let me enjoy the feel of you.”
She moans again, “Yes . . .”
They bump into something, and the sounds of them making out echo around the room. Letting out a sigh, I sit down on the window seat and lean against the wall hidden behind the long drapes. How I found myself in this situation, I don’t know, but hopefully it’ll be over quickly.
Looking back outside, I spot Nate laughing with his friends, and I can’t help the surge of pride that fills me. He’s done well for himself, looks genuinely happy, and I’m glad I came. I didn’t realize how badly I needed to know he was doing okay.
The door opens again, light streaks into the room, and this time there’s a loud gasp met with dead silence.
“Get out!” The voice is low, feminine, and packed with a rage I wouldn’t want directed at me. I’m assuming this voice is from the person who just entered the room. What a dumbass this guy is to go somewhere and get caught.
“Camille,” says the other girl with desperation and panic.
There’s some mumbling, some shuffling, and then the door slams shut.
Peeking out from behind the curtain, I can’t not watch, even though it’s dark. It’s like riding in a car you know is about to crash, and my emotions just elevated along with hers in anticipation.
“How could you? My cousin, and tonight of all nights.” Her words are slow, her voice is thick, and my chest suddenly fills with fury for this poor girl.
“Oh, come on!” says the guy. “You know all of this is for show. I don’t love you. You don’t love me. You shouldn’t be so surprised.”
What a dick!
“I know you don’t love me, but what about loyalty? Faithfulness? Family? Doesn’t that mean anything to you?” Her voice is strained, an odd mixture of anger and betrayal.
“Why should it? We both know why we’re here, and it’s not because of me,” he snaps.
What’s that supposed to mean?
She gasps. “Wrong! All of this is for you! It always has been. Please, please tell me what part of this situation is for me. What do I get out of this?”
Movement comes from her darkened image—she’s thrown her arms out, and I watch as she edges closer to him.
The guy chuckles lowly. “Oh, Camille, there’s the girl with the fire—and here I thought she died, too.”
The sharp sound of Camille’s hand hitting this guy’s face reverberates around the room. Silence stretches between them, and then she whimpers as he jerks her toward him. My hands tighten into fists and I stand from the window seat.
“That is the one and only time I will ever allow you to hit me. Do it again and you’ll regret it.” He shoves her backward and she stumbles, reaching for an end table.
“I can’t marry you.” She shakes her head, breathing hard between each word.
“Yes, you can, and you will.” He steps forward, crowding her aggressively.
“No.” She tilts her head up, the motion just barely noticeable in the darkness.
“Camille, I’m warning you. Think long and hard before you open that pretty little mouth of yours and say something you can’t take back,” he threatens.
“Are there others?” she asks.
Silence follows as he thinks about his answer, relaxes his posture, and steps back.
“Does it matter? Look, come tomorrow, it’s all over, all of them. I know what the stakes are and what the end goal is. You don’t need to worry about this.”
She doesn’t answer him, just wraps her arms around her middle.
Moving away from her, he walks to the door, pausing with his hand on the knob.
“Just stick to the plan and remember your family. You’re a smart girl, so you’ll do your duty. You owe them, and besides, it’s not like you’re the one getting the raw deal here—you’re getting me, whereas I’m only getting you.”
This guy is delusional, and my anger for this girl pulses through me. What could possibly be so bad that someone feels obligated to marry someone else? And someone like him, too?
He opens the door and her head jerks to the side at the onslaught of light.
“Forget about this, Camille. Get some sleep. Tomorrow is a new day.” He pauses and his voice shifts to a definitive tone. “I’ll be waiting for you at the altar, and I expect you to be there.” With that parting note, he walks out, leaving her alone, and the last sliver of light disappears as the door clicks shut and the air in the room stills.
She doesn’t move, and neither do I. I think my shock about this situation almost equals hers.
What the hell is the matter with that guy? How can anyone be so impervious to reality and arrogant at the same time?
A choked sob echoes around the room, pierces my ears, and burns its way down to my toes. Camille’s hands fly to her mouth as she bends over, folding in on herself, and lets out a strangled moan. I know I need to make myself known. Not wanting to add to her humiliation, I step out from behind the curtain of the bay window.
“Well, can’t say I saw that coming.” I’m trying to remain calm, feeling like I’m approaching a wild animal.
She gasps and turns toward the sound of my voice.
Shoving my hands into my pockets, I cross the room and stop a few feet in front of her.
“Wh-Who are you?” she stammers, stepping back a few paces.
I can see her much more clearly now with the moonlight shining directly on her, but I doubt she can see me with the light hitting my back. There are tear tracks running down her face, and the muscles across my shoulders tighten as I silently seethe over her heartache.
“What are you doing in here?” she asks, voice shaky.
“I slipped in for a few minutes of quiet. For the record, I was in here first, and it really doesn’t matter who I am. What does matter, though, is whether or not you want me to kick that guy’s ass, because I absolutely will.”
She looks me over from head to toe, realizes I’m not joking, and then laughs. She laughs so hard emotion twists and turns into tears . . . more tears.
Approaching her slowly, I pull her into me. She tucks her arms between us and buries her face in my chest. I shouldn’t be touching her, much less holding her this close, but right this moment, I don’t care.
Sobs rack through her. As terrible as it is, all I can focus on is how she feels pressed up against me. I’m probably a foot taller than her and she’s less than half my size, but she’s warm and feels perfect. Taking a deep breath, I catch a whiff of how she smells, my eyes slipping shut. She’s been outside for who knows how many hours and she still smells sweet, clean, feminine.
“What do I do?” Her voice is small and unsure.
“I can’t answer that for you.”
“What would you do?” She pulls back a little and looks up at me. The moon has shifted, so I can no longer see the details of her face, and I’m certain she can’t see me at all.
“For me, I think it would be time to move on.”
“Move on,” she repeats, testing out the sound of the words. “But, what about my family?”
“That’s the thing about family, they’ll love you no matter what.”
“I’m not so sure about that.” She looks down and rests her forehead on my chest, her hands gripping the lapels of my suit jacket.
“Well, to me, that’s another reason all in itself to walk away. Maybe it’s time to find people who will.”
Sliding my hand down to her lower back, I squeeze her a little tighter, and she lets out a long, slow breath.
“How did I get here?” she asks, although I know she’s not asking me. She’s asking herself.
A clock chimes from somewhere in the room and she flinches then slowly backs away. I miss her instantly.
In what feels like slow motion, I watch as she pulls her shoulders back, tucks a piece of hair behind her ear, and stands a little taller. Moving into the role she so clearly knows how to play, she clasps her hands in front of her, and although I can’t see it, I know plastered on her face is some semblance of a fake smile.
“I’m sorry you had to witness this . . . me.”
“I’m not sorry, Camille.”
Her breath catches at the use of her name, and I can’t help myself as I lean forward, lightly grip her elbow, and lower my lips next to her ear.
“Better to know now, rather than later.” I kiss the corner of her mouth, lingering for just a second longer than necessary. Her lips part and she turns her head as I pull back, brushing her mouth over mine. In another place, another lifetime, I might take the leap to walk out of this room with her, but what she doesn’t know and I do is that we come from two different worlds. We don’t fit, and with that thought, I take a step back and drop her arm.
Standing in the dark, nothing else to be said, I tuck my hands into my pockets and we stare at the darkened shapes of the other. A small noise comes from Camille, but instead of speaking, she abruptly turns around and slips quietly out of the room.
I DIDN’T SLEEP at all last night. I spent half of it tossing and turning due to the anger I feel for the situation this girl is in, and the other half chastising myself for thinking about how good she felt in my arms, a girl who isn’t mine and never will be. I didn’t tell anyone—I wouldn’t since it’s her business—but now, I’m sitting in this little church next to Nate and his friends, and every single muscle in me is coiled so tight I feel as if I’m about to spring open and burst.
I know in the background there is music playing, and I should be checking out the bridesmaids as they walk down the aisle—after all, bridesmaids are about as easy as they come—but instead my eyes are glued to the very smug face of that asshole from last night.
Sure, he’s playing his part. He’s smiling at the guests and winking at family members, but it isn’t until I watch his eyes shift toward one particular bridesmaid that I see the real him. I’m certain that other than the girl the look was intended for, no one but me saw the lustful expression cross his features or the deep blush burn through her cheeks.
The organ stops, and all around me, people shift to look at the closed doors. The groom and the girl lock eyes one more time and he smirks while shoving his hands into his pockets to adjust his pants.
What an asshole!
An unidentifiable fury pulses through me, and if I were anywhere else but here, there’s a good possibility I would rip his face off and teach him a few things. Guys like him don’t deserve this life, and they certainly don’t deserve girls like the one who’s about to walk through that doorway.
The string quartet sitting in the upper balcony begins to play, and the rear doors whoosh open.
Collectively, everyone stands, and there’s a delighted gasp from the guests. I turn to see her and am momentarily astounded. Damn. I thought she was beautiful before, but this image of her in a white dress . . . it’s indescribable.
Seconds tick by, but she doesn’t move. She’s gripping her bouquet like it’s a lifeline, and behind the short veil over her face, her eyes are darting all around the church. Eventually, her father approaches her and urges her on. What I wouldn’t give to know what she’s thinking right now.
With her eyes trained on the altar—or him, I’m not even sure—she walks by, the pounding of my heart keeping beat with her evenly paced steps. The expensive smell of her perfume lingers as she passes.
Jesus, what’s wrong with me? I don’t know this girl, or really anything about her, but I’m completely pissed off at this entire situation and one hundred percent affected by her, more so than I even realized. Maybe it’s a case of wanting-what-I-can’t-have syndrome, or maybe it’s the protective nature I’ve always had for my family and friends; I just don’t know.
They reach the end of the aisle, the music stops, and the minister begins speaking, but I can’t hear a single word. Everyone sits and my hands ball into fists as they rest on my thighs. Tension must be radiating off me because out of the corner of my eye, I see Nate looking my way. He bumps me with his shoulder, trying to grab my attention, but I shake my head, because I can’t take my eyes off her.
Unexplained heat rises and radiates from my back. I feel like I’m going insane, and then through the screaming in my brain, the minister’s voice comes across clear as a bell.
“If any of you has reason why these two should not be married, speak now or forever hold your peace.”
I stop breathing and my mind starts jumping. Do I, or don’t I?
No, wait—what am I thinking? I can’t object to this wedding. Granted, I don’t believe in weddings, but what am I going to do, take his place? Fuck no. Besides, she doesn’t even know me. Objecting would just cause drama, and I abhor drama. The press would have a field day with this, and the team’s PR department would have my ass.
Then I watch as her shoulders sag and her head drops. Defeat. This isn’t the reaction of someone who’s excited to be getting married—hell, she can’t even maintain the fake act she paraded around last night. She should be all smiles, and instead, she looks like she just accepted a prison sentence. My heart squeezes and I let out a slow breath, knowing I’ve just made up my mind. I can’t let her do this, consequences be damned.
“I do,” I hear myself saying.
The entire crowd turns toward the back of the church in search of the speaker, in search of me, shock etched on every single face.
“What. Are. You. Doing,” Nate growls under his breath, but I don’t respond to him. I can’t.
I rise slowly and he pulls on my jacket sleeve, but I step out into the aisle and begin making my way toward her. The glares being directed my way prickle over every inch of my skin, but I don’t care, because the only eyes that matter now are hers. They’re wide, stunned, and light blue, and she’s trying so hard to place who I am.
“This has to be a joke,” the asshole standing next to her stammers.
My eyes skip from Camille to him and narrow. There’s only one thing I know for sure about how today is ending, and it’s that she will not be married to him.
“I can assure you it’s not.”
His face reddens, but I don’t care. I look back at Camille and give her a small smile, hoping to break some of the tension.
Camille’s eyes widen even farther, and then she jerks her arm away so he’s no longer touching her.
“Sir, what objections do you have to this marriage?” the minister asks.
My brain stalls. I hadn’t thought about that, and Camille raises her eyebrows in question. She wants to hear what I have to say, and the words just slip off my tongue.
“You can’t marry him.” We stare at each other so intently, and I’m praying she can read my mind. “I love you. Marry me.”
I’ve never told a girl I love her. It’s funny how, as impossible as I thought it would be for those words to ever come out of my mouth, there they are. Even though this is fake, it’s scary as hell, and sweat drips down the middle of my back.
Silence falls over the church. It’s so quiet I can hear both Camille and the prick next to her breathing, and then she laughs. She laughs at me.
Something in my chest cracks and my already racing heart feels like it’s dipped in warm water, slowing it down. Beautiful isn’t a strong enough word to describe her laughter.
Murmurs slowly pick up in volume and bounce around the space behind us.
“Look, pal, I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing here, but I think it’s best if you leave.” Patrick tries to stand in front of her, but Camille isn’t having any of it and moves down a few steps, putting us at eye level.
“Camille.” I swallow and reach for her hand. She lets me take it and her fingers wrap tightly around mine. Hers are cold, smooth, and pale, matching her perfect pedigree, while mine are warm, large, and darker, another stark difference between us. As my thumb automatically starts rubbing circles on the inside of her palm, she relaxes and loosens her hold.
“Camille, this is insane. You can’t possibly be considering this!” The arrogance from last night is gone, leaving him sounding desperate. He grabs her other hand, like an absurd game of tug of war, and her conflicted gaze travels back and forth between the two of us.
I pull gently, and her eyes return to mine. “It’s time to make that move,” I whisper, recognition lighting her up as a gasp slips through her perfect lips. A smile tips the corner of my mouth in hopes of reassuring her, and her expression fills with a growing reverence.
“Ms. Whitley,” the minister calls. She tears her eyes away, but her fingers clamp down around mine. “Are we going to have a wedding today?” he asks calmly. “And if so, with whom?”
She looks at Patrick; he’s shaking his head, imploring her not to do this, not to change her mind. The color has drained from his face and he’s deathly pale. Maybe if he had given this girl the respect she deserves, he wouldn’t be reduced to begging right now in front of a room full of people, but then again, something tells me this entitled prick won’t ever change his ways.
She looks at me, and I can’t help but wonder what she sees. The blue in her eyes shifts from light to dark; whatever she’s about to do, she’s decided absolutely. Her backbone has lengthened, her head is held higher, and then she looks past me. Her eyes lock onto someone behind me, and affection for this person floods her eyes. There’s a faint smile on her lips as she blinks then looks back at me.
This is quite possibly the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. I can already feel the crushing weight of the repercussions this is going to cause, but there’s nothing—not one thing—that will change my mind.
“Camille, have you decided?” the minister asks again.
She closes her eyes briefly, looks once more at the prick and at me, and then she drops our hands.
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