The room was covered in roses. Pale, dusty-rose-colored petals were strewn over everything, the lighting, the colors, all of it giving you that romantic, soft-filtered feeling of femininity. It was stunning. The string quartet, the champagne, the servers in crisp white, it was all so elegant… and completely lost on the rest of the men at the table. They looked wrung out and I understood why. Three days of wedding was an uphill grind, and we were only on day two.
I had no idea who had ever decided that a bachelor party should be the night before the rehearsal dinner, but I was pretty sure that person was a sadist. Having barely recovered from staggering home as the sun came up, Dane’s groomsmen had been expected to be sober and high-functioning the following day by five, to be put through the repetitive practice of walking in and out of the church. They were also supposed to be impressed with the lovely room and intimate setting, when all they wanted to do was drink away the remnants of their hangovers. I was glad I had taken the time off from work for my brother’s wedding, since if I’d had to keep up my usual schedule of appointments I would have turned instantly to ash. When I was hounded to accompany them out carousing for the second night in a row, I snuck out instead, declining by way of absence, and went home to bed. It was the coward’s way, but I could never have kept up. They were all much better drinkers than me, which was saying a lot as I could normally hold my own.
The following morning when I reached the suite with my tuxedo draped over my arm, I was not surprised to find them still in their clothes from the night before. There was one on the floor, one on each couch, one in the wingback chair and Jude, Dane’s best man, alone in the bed, drooling. It was a sight to behold. When the door opened and it was Aja Greene—Dane’s fiancée and not the man himself—come to roust the boys, I felt really sorry for them. It was her wedding day, and they looked like roadkill. This was not the way to get on her good side.
“Are you kidding me?” she shrieked in the silence.
The moaning and whimpering made me smile as I started pouring coffee and water. I had brought a large bottle of Tylenol with me.
“Hey,” Rick Jenner said softly as he gestured me over to him. “What time is it?”
“It’s ten.” I smiled down at him. “The wedding’s not for another eight hours.”
“Then why is she screaming?”
“She’s not, actually.”
“It sounds like it to me.”
“Yeah, but you can probably hear paint peeling,” I suggested.
He only groaned.
“She’s only concerned that you guys aren’t gonna look pretty for pictures.”
“Owww.” He winced, patting the couch beside him. “Sit.”
“It was the last shot of tequila off the girl’s navel that did it,” I teased him. I could only imagine what the second night of debauchery had degraded to.
“How d’ya know?” He tried to smile, putting his head on my leg as soon as I sat down.
I smiled at him as I was bumped from the other side and hands gripped my shoulders.
Lance Simmons and Alex Greene, Aja’s brother, had joined me.
“Hey, fellas,” I teased them, looking sideways at Lance’s profile. “You guys all done barfing?”
“No,” he whined, his head on my shoulder. “Tell me what we have to eat for dinner.”
“Liver and onions,” I cackled evilly.
“Oh screw you,” he retched, leaning over to lie down on the couch. The leather had to be cool on his hot face. “Liver, my ass.”
“Alex.” I called his name softly.
“Mmmm.” He barely made a noise, his forehead against the back of my neck.
“Do your eyelids hurt?”
“If I straighten my head, I think it’ll explode.”
“Your sister’s coming.”
He whimpered before she yelled, “You guys need to get up!”
Her voice was like getting whiplash—fast and painful. I felt it run down my spine.
“Oh God,” Alex groaned from behind me, and we all laughed when we heard the bump as he hit the floor. “I think my eyes are bleeding.”
“Guys!” we heard Jude whine from the bedroom. “Will you shut the hell up!”
She whirled around to go see him, and at that moment I thanked God that I was not Jude Coughlin. There was not enough money in the world.
“Do something, J,” Rick begged me. “You’re the only one she loves.”
“J, you gotta make her stop yelling,” Alex begged me from the floor on the other side of the couch. “I seriously think it could kill me.”
“Is it really liver?” Lance moaned into the couch.
We all heard Jude give out a high-pitched, girly scream from the bedroom.
I couldn’t stop smiling.
“I think I’m gonna puke,” Rick said from my lap, covering his face with one of the throw pillows.
“I will kill you all if you do not get up!”
“J,” Lance almost cried, “make her stop.”
“Make her stop,” Rick seconded.
“Please make her stop,” Alex begged me.
“She’s your sister,” I reminded him.
“Yeah, but she loves you more than me.”
“Do you hear me?” she roared from the other room, obviously still torturing Jude.
“Ohmygod, just kill her,” Lance whispered, facedown on the couch now. “Why did you guys let me sleep folded up like a pretzel? I think my spine is broken.”
We all heard Jude scream again before there was a crash and a thump.
“I bet she dumped him out of bed,” Alex sighed from the floor.
“I’m okay,” he called out to us.
“Asshole got the bed,” Rick whined. “He deserves what he gets.”
“Where’s Rick?” she shouted as she came charging into the room.
He whimpered. “J, she’s gonna hurt me.”
“This is what comes of partying like rock stars.” I chuckled. “When you’re not.”
“Owww,” Alex whined.
“Where’s the ice bucket?” she yelled from across the room.
“J.…” Rick trailed off.
I called to her gently, but loud enough so she could hear me.
Aja Greene came striding across the room to me. “What?” she snapped out.
“How’re you this morning, pretty lady?” I smiled wide, looking up at the only other woman besides my work-wife, and best-friend, Dylan Greer that I could say I truly loved. In my life there had been my grandmother, Dylan, and my brother’s soon-to-be wife. These were the women who meant the world to me. “You feel okay?”
Her sigh was deep as she passed Lance and slapped him as hard as she could on the ass. He almost howled.
“Yes, baby.” She stopped in front of me, shoving Rick up and moving him before she leaned down to give me a kiss. “I feel great.”
I lifted my head, and the kiss I received was featherlight on my lips.
“Jory.” She smiled, hand sliding under my chin, over my jaw. “Come to my room really fast. I want you to meet my folks, and Dane’s people are there.”
Which meant that the Reid clan—Susan and Daniel Reid, Dane’s biological parents, and his siblings, two brothers and one sister—had arrived to attend the wedding.
“Okay,” I said, stifling a yawn and getting up.
“And you guys need to pull it together and get ready,” she snarled at the others. “Now!”
The muffled groans made me smile as she took my hand and tugged me after her toward the door. I heard them behind us, and then Rick asked if anyone knew where his sunglasses were. Funny to think that a CEO, a CFO, a partner at one of the major law firms in the city, and a bank manager could so resemble hungover frat boys.
“Look how beautiful,” she commented, raising our hands.
Her flawless, smooth, caramel skin against my permanent golden tan: we looked good together. People told us all the time.
I looked at her.
“Did you ever think that your brother would marry a black girl?”
“Are you black?” I asked her.
She smiled wide and I saw the dimples I loved.
“Actually,” I sighed, “the minute I saw you, I knew you were the one.”
“You asked him to dance.”
“I’m not the only one that ever did.”
“No, but you’re the only one who ever made him nervous.”
She sighed deeply. “I did, didn’t I?”
“I think we both knew what we wanted.”
“Yep. And you’re perfect for him.”
“Why?” She was fishing.
“’Cause you’re smart—school principals hafta be—beautiful, wicked-mean—”
“Mean?” She gasped in mock shock.
“You know you’re mean. You nearly killed those poor guys.”
“They’ll be lucky to live,” she growled, brows furrowing.
“You’re adorable,” I assured her, hand on her cheek. “And you are completely self-sufficient. You want Dane, but you don’t need him.”
Deep sigh. “Make no mistake, Jory, I need that man desperately.”
“Yeah, but you’re your own person. Your whole word doesn’t revolve around him.”
She thought a moment. “No, that’s true.”
“See? You love Dane, I know that, but you’re gonna be Aja Harcourt, not Mrs. Dane Harcourt.”
She nodded. “That’s true too.”
I shrugged. “That’s how I knew. All those other women just wanted to disappear inside him. You, we’re still gonna be able to see.”
She stopped suddenly and stared at me. “You have been amazing since the moment I laid eyes on you.”
“I wanted you for my brother,” I assured her.
“And I’m so glad you’re going to be mine.”
“But you gotta be sweet to the one you already have.”
She frowned again. “He better shape up, because if he ruins my wedding… so help me God, I will ruin him permanently.”
“Okay, now you’re gettin’ a little spooky.” I chuckled.
“Oh Jory.” She sighed. “I just love you. Come with me.”
And I did.
Aja’s eyes were huge and her mouth hung open. Her mother had an identical expression, as did all her bridesmaids and her maid of honor. It was probably the dancing. Her father, Judge Greene, and I were doing the twist to Fats Domino music and singing along as we did it. Currently, “My Girl Josephine” was bouncing out of the speakers.
“Miss Aja,” I heard her best friend Candace laugh out loud, “look at your father, girl.”
“Jory,” she called over to me, and I heard the deep chuckle. “Baby, what—”
“Leave him alone,” the judge cut her off playfully. “We’re busy.”
“Kenneth Greene, what in heaven’s name are you doing?” Aja’s mother asked her husband, her smile making her eyes sparkle.
Instead of answering, he motioned her over. Immediately she went to him, and seconds later he had her in his arms, dipping her low, dancing her around the suite.
Dane suddenly filled the doorway, standing beside the woman who would be his wife by the end of the day. It was funny to see his expression as he looked across the room to where I now danced in a circle of beautiful women. He tipped his head at me, and I smiled back. I watched him put an arm around Aja’s shoulders and pull her close before he kissed her cheek.
“Jory.” He called my name.
There were hands in my hair, on my back, sliding off my shoulders, clutching at my shirt before I got free to cross the room. As I stepped in front of Dane, he put a hand on the lapel of my dress shirt and pulled me forward into his arms.
“Thank you,” he said, face down in my shoulder.
My eyes flicked to Aja’s as he let me go and left as suddenly as he’d come.
“What’s going on?” she asked quickly.
I coughed once. “Mr. Reid came in here asking questions about you, and your dad took offence.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“It was no big deal,” I lied.
“Questions? What kind of questions?”
I shrugged. “He doesn’t know anything about you and Dane didn’t even invite them to anything but the wedding and reception, so… I guess they wanted to find out about you.”
“Well, your dad didn’t see. You can’t really blame him.”
She smiled at me. “It’s not like my dad to get upset about a few innocent inquiries.”
“It was a lot,” I defended her father. “I was uncomfortable too.”
She nodded. “So what happened?”
“Your dad said that the only family of Dane’s he worried about was me.” I grinned at her.
“Oh.” She nodded. “Since you and Dane are the only Harcourts in the place.”
“Right.” I smiled wide, leaning close and kissing her forehead. “At least until six o’clock.”
She sighed deeply.
“You’ll be the new Harcourt down front in the gown, right?”
In answer I got arms wrapped around my neck and she hugged me tight. “What did you do?”
“I went and got my iPod and asked your dad if he still had moves.”
I felt her shaking in my arms.
“As you can see, the man’s still got it.”
She clutched me tighter, her head back as the laughter bubbled up out of her.
When I glanced back at her folks, I was rewarded with the warm smile of her mother.
It had been tense. Dane’s parents, especially his father, questioning the judge about his daughter… it had started out so benign, just chatting, before quickly deteriorating into an all-out inquisition. They knew nothing about Aja and wanted to know everything. It had been well intended, but had come off as critical, biased, and almost racist. Dane and I were just walking back from our racquetball game and we heard the raised voices from the hall. We interrupted and Dane insisted on showing the Reids to his suite upstairs, away from the communal one being used so the wedding party could visit with guests or get something to eat before the ceremony. He took his parents, as well as his brothers Caleb and Jeremy and his sister Gwen, so the judge could recover and collect his thoughts. The look Dane had given me as he left had been so pained that I felt my chest tighten just looking at him. The last thing he wanted to do on his wedding day was upset his future father-in-law with people that were of minimal importance to him. The truth was, he simply liked the judge better than his biological family. I had to fix it. I had to restore the ease that the day had begun with; this, then, was what Dane’s look had conveyed on his exit. And I had accomplished it by dancing around the suite like an idiot with Aja’s dad.
“Jory, what would your brother do without you?” Aja asked me, again squeezing me tight.
“I dunno, but we’ll never hafta find out.”
“No.” She shook her head just barely. “We won’t.”
“Jory!” the judge called for me.
I ran back to him and he showed me that he could still do the bump. I thought Aja’s mother was going to pass out. That everyone was laughing was a very good thing.
The church was filled with a sea of people that all stood as the bride posed with her father at the end of the aisle. She was breathtakingly beautiful, simple and chic, and the pride on her father’s face made everyone smile. Dane’s parents and siblings sat in the front row on the right, Aja’s mother and grandparents on the left. Her extended family filled the first three pews, and after that were family friends and friends that were like family. Dane and Aja now shared a lot of the same people, those that would be spending their lives with them. The nearest and dearest of all were there with the groom on the stage as they waited for the bride to join them. Candace Jacobs stood, regal and stunning, head raised as she watched her best friend in the world walk toward the man she loved. All Aja’s bridesmaids were perfection in their strapless pewter mermaid gowns—long, graceful lines with upswept hair, flawless, smooth skin, resembling delicate, graceful swans. They were luminous.
Jude was resplendent in his Armani tuxedo, and stood beside Dane proudly, looking as though he had stepped from the pages of a magazine. I had never seen him look better. Dane’s friends had come together to stand at his side, all of them crisp and pressed, simply gorgeous, causing a stir when they had walked out to take their places on the stairs, descending down to me. I had worried at being included, not wanting to tarnish his moment being, as I was, without the same height, breadth of shoulder, or chest. Dane had not worried. He was less concerned with the perfect picture and more with his brother on stage with him. Aja, with the same desire, had drowned my objections.
And as I watched them, their hands entwined, speaking the words that would join them forever, I was thankful to be there, sharing their moment. It was humbling to be at the beginning of a new life, the one they would share together. I closed my eyes and breathed when they were presented. Mr. and Mrs. Harcourt, husband and wife. The picture etched in my mind forever of Aja lifting her head to receive his kiss, her eyes filled with him, his hands on her face, drawing her close as he bent to seal their lips together. Her arms went around his neck and he clutched her to his chest. They were stunning together, the picture of what love looked like. There was an eruption of applause when they parted and were introduced as husband and wife, a thundering sound that consumed the silence from seconds before. I could not imagine a more perfect moment.
The reception was lavish, money that I could not even dream of having being spent to give Aja the day she had dreamed of since she was ten. There were six courses of food accompanied by wine and champagne and any beverage a guest could request. People were in awe of the orchestra and the full dance floor and the thousands of candles that cast a warm glow through the room. The first dance for the bride and groom was fluid precision and mesmerizing to watch. They went naturally together, blending seamlessly because they fit. When Aja danced with her father, no one did anything else but stare at the dashing man and his daughter. Dane floated across the floor with Aja’s mother, and the same was true. Obvious from the way they all hugged afterwards that this was a union that had both their approval and support. Not surprising, as it was hard to imagine any parent not wanting Dane for a son-in-law.
I knew that Mrs. Reid had wanted the mother-son dance with Dane that he had given to Aja’s mom. In the end, Dane had invited his birth parents, along with his sister and two brothers, to come to his wedding, but it was me, without benefit of blood, who stood at his side. I was the one with the same name; I was the one he hugged tight after the ceremony. I was the one his wife called her new brother and her parents saw as the entirety of the family that he brought to the marriage.
I listened to the speeches. I was moved by Candace’s words to the bride, laughed at Jude’s to Dane, and when Dane and Aja stood and thanked the crowd for coming and celebrating with them, I was so happy for them that I stood and gave them the standing ovation with everyone else. When all seats had been retaken, Dane took a breath as Aja leaned into his side. I waved to the photographer and he caught it before they moved apart. I had a feeling it was going to be one of the best of the night. Before anything else happened, Alex stood and directed all attention to the screen at the side of the dance floor. When the curtain drew back, the images and the music began the montage of Dane and Aja, their families, their friends, and their times before meeting and after. The last shot was of Dane on his knees in front of Aja as he held a rose up to her. They both looked at me, in an instant remembering the trip to Carmel and the picture I had snapped. I was pleased with the tears in the bride’s eyes and Dane’s clenched jaw as Aja’s favorite Stevie Wonder song filled the room. The applause came like a roar as the guests went wild. Aja’s mother was up and out of her seat in one fluid movement, rushing from her table to mine to take me in her arms. She understood at last why I had needed to go through her photo albums with her. When she let me go, I turned to the bride and groom and gestured for them to take the floor. Dane led his wife past me, his hand lingering on my cheek for a moment before he walked by.
After midnight the orchestra retired and the DJ came in to keep the dancing going until the wee hours of the morning. Jackets and bow ties were shed, high heels were discarded, and the serious dancing began. I would have joined in but there were small details that needed attention. I had to hand out the “swag,” as Aja called it—going from table to table to personally make sure everyone got a keepsake from the wedding—coordinate with the catering manager, and arrange for all the disposable cameras on every table to be picked up.
When I felt the arms wrap around my waist, I turned in her embrace and found the bride.
“Come dance with me.” She smiled.
I smiled back and we went together to the floor. Always, the two of us together could not remain serious for even a minute. In her dress and my tuxedo, it translated to an over-the-top waltz. There were spins and dips and we basically had everyone laughing and clapping and calling for an encore when we were done. She told me over and over how much she loved me, and when Dane came to part us, instead of taking her into his arms, he wrapped an arm around my neck and led me from the crowd back to the table.
We sat together, leaning forward, elbows on knees, talking quietly.
“So, it goes without saying, but still… I have the woman I love, the brother I love, friends I love… there is no one more blessed than me.”
I looked into his dark gray eyes, saw the warmth there, and nodded. “I’m sorry Mr. and Mrs. Harcourt couldn’t be here today to be with you.”
He nodded. “They are.”
“They would be so proud of you, Dane.”
His eyes absorbed me. “My family, the people who mean the world to me… are Aja and you.”
I smiled at him.
“I need you with me always.”
I nodded. “Same here.”
Hand on the back of my neck, he squeezed tight before he let go and stood. “Love you,” he said as he walked away. He barely got it out.
I sat back and watched him go, and there came a sudden feeling of absolute peace. I let my head fall back, my eyes close, and just breathed.
I heard the click of a shutter and opened my eyes to find Aja hovering on the other side of the table with Candace and another bridesmaid. I glanced at the photographer before returning my gaze to the bride. “What’re you doing?”
She let out a deep breath but said nothing.
“Jory,” Candace said, drawing my attention. “Baby, I had no idea you were so pretty.”
I chuckled and looked again to Aja.
“You are, you know.”
“Beautiful,” she told me, motioning me over to her. “It’s funny because you worried about standing up with the others, and the truth of the matter is that, Jory honey, you are the beauty of the bunch.”
“You love me.” I smiled wide, wrapping her up in my arms. “You’re a little biased.”
“I do love you, but that doesn’t make you any less gorgeous.”
I chuckled and squeezed her tight and she buried her face in my shoulder.
Candace bumped the bouquet into Jude’s girlfriend’s arms when Aja deliberately threw it at her an hour later, and the look on his face when he realized she had was priceless. The surge to the door to watch Dane and Aja leave in the Rolls Royce limousine pushed the wedding party from the front to the back. There was no way for any of us to even get close. Dane held up his hand for me and Aja blew me a kiss. I had my orders. In the three weeks they would be gone on their honeymoon, I had to coordinate movers. All her things, all his things needed to be in the new house in Highland Park by the time they got back. It was all me. I had promised to get it done, even with my busy schedule. My brother was counting on me.
People started to trickle out and the music changed to oldies that everyone could dance to and sing along with. I went and said good-bye to the Reids, gave Caleb a hug, and was surprised when Dane’s father made a point of saying how much he appreciated me putting a photo of their family in the montage.
“Of course.” I smiled at him.
He patted my back as I was squatting between his and his wife’s chairs.
“Jory, you’re such a good boy,” Mrs. Reid sighed, the tears welling in her eyes. “Dane certainly picked a wonderful brother.”
I leaned up and kissed her cheek and her hand stayed pressed to the side of my neck until she could breathe without crying. I thanked them all for coming, and Caleb told me how lucky Dane was to have me. I told him that I was the lucky one.
I worked my way slowly through the crowd, doing the last check, moving from table to table before I found the catering manager to thank him. Finally done, I changed back into jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and Converse sneakers and headed toward the door. I weaved through the crowd to say my last good nights to the wedding party and quickly kissed and hugged all the women. I found Rick, Lance, and Alex sitting together and stopped at their table.
“You wanna wait and catch a ride, J?” Rick asked me.
I smiled at him and shook my head.
“What’re we gonna do without him?” Jude asked as he walked up to lean on the back of one of the empty chairs. “He’s the first to fall.”
“We were always together,” Rick said softly, looking around at all of us. “It’s weird. It’s like the end of an era or something.”
“I feel like I should mourn my friend.”
I smiled at them as I hooked myself up to my iPod.
“You think it’s funny, J?” Rick asked me.
“No.” I took a deep breath, stepping away from the table. “But you gotta grow up sometime.”
“I’m not ready to get married,” Rick insisted. “And I definitely don’t want to be anybody’s father.”
“Okay,” I agreed, my eyes slipping over each of them in turn. “You guys take it easy. I’ll see ya round.”
“Gimme a call, J,” Rick insisted. “I’ll kick your ass at some racquetball or something.”
“Sure,” I lied before I pivoted around and headed for the door.
It was nice that, outside, it was crisp but not cold, a beautiful night—or early morni