Misadventures of a Backup Bride by Shayla Black

  Kendra elbows him gently. “Brayden, Carson and I are…”

  “Formerly engaged,” he finishes Kendra’s awkward incomplete sentence.

  “That’s true, but maybe a better description is that he’s become a friend.”

  Now that we’re not being forced to marry? “I like that. Yes.”

  Brayden scowls but accepts her proclamation in silence.

  “Thanks for having the courage to end this,” she says. “I should have months ago, instead of pretending to be so vapid. I kept living up to my father’s unenlightened characterization of me, hoping you’d want out. I’m sorry. I should have simply refused.” She curls her hand around Brayden’s arm and glances up at him with a starry expression I’ve never seen her wear. “I guess it took finding the right person to make me realize I had to stop trying to please my father, start pleasing myself, and do the right thing.”

  Hold up. Her insipid antics were an act? “You’re not a boy-crazy, dancing-topless-at-a-frat-house type?”

  Kendra grimaces. “No. I made that up. I was getting desperate.”

  “I’ll be damned. I did not see that coming.”

  She laughs. “It seems I had everyone fooled, except Brayden.”

  When she squeezes her fiancé’s arm, I notice she’s wearing a new engagement ring. The stone is a mere pinprick compared to the rock I’d previously given her, but this gem makes her far happier, I can tell.

  I smile. “I’ll say. So…what about all the losers your dad said you dated in the past? Were those strictly to annoy him?”

  “I had to get my teenage rebellion in somehow,” she quips. “By the way, Ella is beautiful. It was lovely to meet her at the benefit. Y’all look good together. I hope you two will be happy.”

  “Thanks. I hope you’ll be happy, too. Speaking of…” I glance pointedly at her not-so-naked finger. “Do you have good news to share?”

  Kendra flashes her new engagement ring, looking so proud and excited. “Yes. We’re getting married!”

  And I hear the squeal of an excited bride that I never heard from her when her father forced us together.

  “That’s fantastic. Have you set a date yet?”

  The pair exchanges a glance, and Kendra pets his arm as if to silently ask for his trust. That piques my curiosity.

  “We’re on our way to the airport now,” Brayden finally admits. “We’re eloping to Vegas.”

  This is a conversation full of surprises. I’m stunned on multiple levels. “Congratulations.” I think. “Didn’t you meet less than two weeks ago?”

  “I know it’s fast,” she rushes to assure me. “But…I looked at him and I knew. I’m sure you’ll tell me that’s crazy. Or you’ll think I really am that flighty sorority girl my father foisted off on you. But it’s not like that. I’m finally serious about life because I have a reason to be.”

  She turns her blue eyes up to Brayden, whose stoic expression finally breaks to reveal utter adoration. I don’t know what shocks me more: that she might actually be in love or that this straightforward man with a military mentality is equally willing to reveal his love after less than two weeks.

  “That’s fantastic, Kendra. Congratulations.”

  “Thanks. Here.” She digs into her purse and fishes around before she withdraws a red velvet box. She opens it to reveal the familiar cushion-cut solitaire with pavé diamonds set in rose gold.

  I snap it shut and take the box back, then deposit it in a desk drawer—still blocking Brayden from viewing my screen. “I appreciate you returning it.”

  Kendra shrugs. “If I didn’t want it because I didn’t want to marry you, it didn’t seem right for me to keep it.”

  Fair enough. “So…I take it your father doesn’t know your weekend plans?”

  She shakes her head. “I told him we were going camping in the Smokies and we might not have any cell service.”

  I nearly choke. “You, camping? No offense, but you’re a princess who likes her creature comforts. Did he believe your cover story?”

  “I don’t know. I left him a voicemail and promptly turned off my phone. I’ll call him on Sunday, after we’re married. Then…I’ll let the chips fall.”

  “He’s already threatened to block you from your trust. What if he cuts you out of Dulce Lama altogether?”

  She shrugs and looks at Brayden again, as if reaffirming the answer they’ve already discussed. “We’ll survive. We may not have a lot of money. As soon as we graduate from college, my husband—oh, I love the sound of that—will be going to officer candidate school in Rhode Island. Then we’ll be living wherever the military takes him. And that’s perfect by me.”

  I frown and glance Brayden’s way. “You don’t have any interest in Dulce Lama, either?”

  “I’ve known from the time I was four that I wanted to join the navy. My father was an enlisted man, and I sometimes tease him that I intend to outrank him someday. But corporate America isn’t for me. I know nothing about making candy or running a multimillion-dollar organization.” Brayden scowls, and for the first time, I see something on his face that tells me he’s thought this through. “Money doesn’t motivate me the way duty, honor, and country do. I already know Mr. Shaw will have a difficult time believing that, so Kendra and I drafted a legal document. We both signed it and had it witnessed. I can’t ever touch a dime of her trust and I can’t ever become involved in any part of her father’s company should he leave it to her. Mr. Shaw may never accept me as a son-in-law and he may even think I’m marrying Kendra for a paycheck. After all, I came from nowhere anyone could find on a map, and the only thing my family has an abundance of is love. That’s fine. He’ll learn sooner or later that I’m marrying her because my world revolves around her. I intend to spend the rest of my life with her.”

  Weirdly, I actually believe them. Even weirder, I hope they make it.

  I walk away from my frozen computer—it doesn’t seem as if it matters if they see anything on my screen—and approach them. I shake Brayden’s hand and drop a kiss on Kendra’s cheek. “Good luck to both of you. Enjoy your wedding.”

  “What about you and Ella?” she asks. “Dad said that you two are going to use the ceremony I’d previously planned for us.”

  “More or less. You did a great job. We don’t have time to change much since we’re also in the midst of buying a house, but Ella and I talked to the wedding planner and made a few changes to the flowers and tablecloths to accommodate a more muted color scheme.”

  “Muted? You’re so diplomatic. You mean Ella didn’t want Barbie-pink?” Kendra laughs.

  As she does, the truth dawns on me. “You did that on purpose?”

  “I did. Every time I mentioned it, I noticed you either winced or tuned me out.” She elbows me with a grin. “I’d really hoped the accent fabric with hearts and bows everywhere would be the perfect touch.”

  “Um…” I pull at the back of my neck with a wry grin. “I think when the planner sent the samples to Ella, her comment was something along the lines of ‘everything’s vomiting a six-year-old girl’s fantasy.’”

  “When I chose the material, Vasha tried so hard to talk me out of it,” Kendra says of the wedding planner. “Glad to know she and Ella both are getting their way.”

  “Yes. We’re going with a classic black-and-white theme.”

  “That sounds a lot more elegant and far more like you. But the venue is beautiful.”

  “We’re seeing it in a couple of hours.” And I hope when we do, my “fiancée” will be inspired to get married for real.

  “Fantastic. Did Ella find a dress?”

  “Actually, her middle sister almost got married a couple of years ago and still has the gown she bought. Eryn is going to bring it for Ella since we’re on such a short timeframe.”

  Kendra nods. “If it will fit, that’s handy.”

  “What about you? Wearing the one you already picked out?”

  “No. I found a simple lacy white sundress on clearance at Neima
n’s that’s exactly what I want and—”

  “Baby girl, I hate to interrupt but we’re going to miss our plane if we don’t leave now,” Brayden points out quietly.

  She glances at her delicate wristwatch. “You’re right. Oh my god, we’ve got to run. Next time you see me, I’ll be Mrs. Brayden Ashmore. Bye, Carson.” She hugs me one last time, and I hope the happiness she feels now will carry through the rest of her life. “I’ll see you next weekend.”

  I hesitate. “You’re coming to my wedding?”

  Kendra flashes me a grin. “Absolutely. I wouldn’t miss it for the world!”

  Chapter Nine


  It’s been a stressful week, and by the time Friday evening rolls around, I feel jittery and shaky and so confused. Today, I said the final goodbyes to my new coworkers. They don’t know that yet. They won’t until Monday. Leaving early has ripped me in two. I’ve really enjoyed the job for the two weeks I’ve had it. Yesterday, I got to meet some of the kids from one of the church groups the organization is helping. Their appreciation was touching and their excitement infectious. I feel like a phony shit for walking out on them all.

  Worse, the phony trend will continue tomorrow. I’ll be a fake bride. I’ll fake smile for my fake wedding to Carson before I fake run out on him prior to reaching the altar. He’ll fake being shocked and heartbroken, while I’ll manufacture fake drama the whole tragic night before I truly slink off alone, probably to cry real tears.

  Sunday morning, I’ll be back on a plane with my sisters, winging toward my old life in Los Angeles, owing them a crap ton of explanations, and without the man I love.

  I don’t know if I can do it.

  My sisters arrived yesterday. They both liked Carson immediately, which doesn’t surprise me. He’s awesome—handsome, funny, charming when he wants to be. Eryn and Echo both have given a thumbs-up to Charlotte and said that if they had to part with me for a man, a new city, and a new life, they understand my choice.

  I wanted to cry because I can see myself here, too. As Mrs. Carson Frost. Keeping my job and racing to the new home we toured last Sunday afternoon and loved. He put in an offer on the property Monday morning. We found out last night that the sellers accepted. I’m sadder than I thought I would be that I won’t be living in that dream house with him. Someday, another woman will. I’m jealous of her already.

  How would he react if I said I might want to stay?

  “Are you ready for this?” Eryn sidesteps closer as we all mill around the empty ballroom, waiting for our wedding rehearsal to begin. The hotel is beautiful, and I have no doubt our “wedding” will be exquisite.

  I give her my best fake impression of happiness. “Yeah. I’m excited.”

  She frowns at me. “You should be. He’s great. Really. If West and I shared half the love you and Carson seem to, we might have made it to our wedding day.”

  I swallow down more guilt. Eryn rarely talks about her ex-fiancé anymore. Weston Quaid was a good guy, if a little rough around the edges. He seemed to worship her—right up until the end. “I think you did share love. Twenty was too young to get married, and he got spooked.”

  “Because he didn’t love me enough.” She gives me a tight grin as if she doesn’t want me to candy-coat the truth. “But better to know that before we got married than after.”

  She’s right, but that doesn’t ease her pain. I have no doubt some part of her is still attached to West. “I know your wedding dress has sentimental value for you. Thanks for lending it to me.”

  “It was gathering dust in the closet, so I’m glad someone will finally put it to good use. We’re lucky it didn’t need more than a little hem and tuck for it to fit.”

  When I tried it on after the tailor rushed through the few alterations in the last twenty-four hours, it fit as if it were made for me. Even slipping the gown on was both a joy and a sorrow. With lacy straps that hug my shoulders, an embellished bodice that dips to show the right amount of cleavage, and a tulle skirt that’s pure romance, it’s perfect. Or it would be if I were actually getting married.

  I’m so torn about this fake wedding. Honestly, I’m torn about my relationship with Carson in general.

  “Okay, everyone in their places,” Vasha calls out.

  I spy him cutting up with his two groomsmen. Luis, one of the guys he went to college with, is darkly handsome and recently married. His other pal from a previous job, Sam, has a more cool, aristocratic appeal—until he smiles, which seems to be often. In fact, they’re all laughing now, clinking booze in plastic glasses, looking as if they don’t have a care in the world. When my “groom” slants a glance my way, I know instantly he’s got something on his mind.

  Nerves knot my tummy. I’m not sure which outcome to hope for anymore—for him to call off this farce right now or tell me he wants to make it real.

  “I need my bride and groom,” the wedding planner shouts, motioning me over with a flip of her hand.

  I head toward her dutifully, dreading this pretense. Even looking at Carson now hurts. Making love is a bittersweet torture. It’s impossible to believe that in twenty-four hours, I might see him again for the last time. Though we’re in love, I’m worried it’s not enough. What if we say we intend to make our relationship work from across the country? All right, but for how long? What event would change our circumstances? And what happens if one of us gets lonely or becomes frustrated that we can’t be together? Or decides the deprivation isn’t worth the effort anymore and calls to break up? Or maybe stops answering the other’s calls and texts? I can’t afford to fly across the country, and he can’t spare the time away from Sweet Darlin’.

  Once I leave, I don’t see us working out. And that’s killing me because I can’t imagine living without him.

  “Carson,” Vasha calls again.

  She might be five feet tall with long black hair and a round, youthful face, but looks are deceiving. This woman is as cuddly as a tigress. Everyone is a bit afraid of her—except Sam, who keeps eyeing her like he’d enjoy the chance to prove he can more than handle her claws.

  Carson lopes in our direction. Vasha huddles us together and gives some instructions that barely register in my racing brain. He takes my hand and nods on our behalf.

  “Great,” the wedding planner says, snapping her fingers and signaling to someone we can’t see to dim the lights.

  The room falls silent.

  “Bride and groom, tell your attendants what they need to be doing. I’m going to make sure the music is ready. Everyone must be in their places in five minutes.”

  With that, she’s gone, focusing her considerable attention to some other detail I would never have even considered.

  When I spin around to find my sisters and flub passing along whatever I didn’t hear, Carson stops me. He wraps his hand around my wrist and sends me a searching stare. “You okay, sweetheart?”

  I’m not sure what to say. “This is harder than I thought it was going to be.”

  “Being dishonest with Eryn and Echo? With everyone else?”

  “Yeah.” That’s part of the problem, anyway. But certainly not all of it.

  How do I tell him I have second thoughts about jilting him at the altar? He’s hinted now and then that we might make more of our relationship someday, but he hasn’t once suggested that we actually get married tomorrow. I don’t want to presume he’s interested in becoming husband and wife. Or ask, only to find out he’s decided that’s a no for him. But I think he still wants us together. He makes love to me every night like he can’t stop touching me, like he can’t breathe without me. I cling to him in sleep because I’m afraid I’ll wake to find him gone. I don’t want to be that woman who’s too insecure to tell the man she loves that she wants more from their relationship, but I’m tripped up by my childhood. If my own parents couldn’t really love me, why should this wonderful man? On the other hand, if I tell Carson I might want to be his wife for real and he wants that, too, someone will have to sacrifi
ce so we can be together. Is either of us ready for that?

  Why is this such a tangle?

  “Talk to me,” he says softly, taking my hand.

  To everyone else, it probably looks like a tender moment between a couple ready to commit their lives to each other. But
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