Misadventures of a Backup Bride by Shayla Black


  you to stay here with me.”

  My heart is in my throat. I shouldn’t be surprised he feels this way. I probably suspected it deep down. Everything between us has been like lightning—fast and bright. We feel so right together. Meant to be. Which doesn’t make any logical sense because we only had our first real face-to-face solo conversation sixteen days ago. Should we even be talking about our future, much less forever?

  “What would we do with the wedding? Continue the jilting as planned, then say afterward that we’ve decided to live together and figure it out?”

  “We could do that.” He cradles my face in his hands. “Or we could go through with it.”

  “Actually get married?”

  His blue eyes soften as he reassures me with the adoration in his gaze. “Exactly. We have a wedding, a minister, your family, my friends, a valid wedding license… The details are done. I don’t know that we could have planned the event any better ourselves.”

  We couldn’t have. I’m terrible at organizing such things, and despite the few things Kendra tossed in to needle Carson in the hopes he’d back out, everything is exquisite and elegant. It will be a wedding to remember, and Shaw certainly spared no expense. It’s a dream come true.

  But I don’t know if it’s really real—or lasting.

  “And you’re not saying that simply to pull the ultimate one over on Gregory Shaw?”

  “What?” He jackknives up, nudging me to his side. “Is that what you think? Let me be clear. I love you. If I got to choose what happens tomorrow, I’d marry you and move you here with me so we could be together forever. But you have to want that, too. I can’t want it enough for both of us.” Suddenly, he’s on his feet and snatching a blanket from the back of a nearby chair. “I’m going to sleep in the office. I think you need the time alone to decide what you want tomorrow to be. Think long and hard, Ella. Because I’m playing for real.” He strides to the door. “Let me know what you decide.”

  Then he’s gone, the click of the door the only sound to break the otherwise terrible silence. I sink to the mattress alone, in sheets rumpled by our lovemaking and smelling like sex.

  He’s right. I need to make decisions. How far am I willing to go? How much will he break my heart if I say yes and this doesn’t work out? How much will I regret it if I don’t try at all?

  I curl up with the sheets. Tears come. It’s going to be a long night.

  Chapter Ten

  CARSON

  “Good morning. Don’t mind us,” Eryn proclaims as she bursts inside my apartment, clutching Ella’s keys, while I’m in mid-pour of my first cup of coffee. “We’re just barging in.”

  Echo is right behind her, a long braid swinging over one shoulder, and wearing a smile. “Yep. We swiped her keys from her purse last night so we can kidnap the bride.”

  Is she going to be my bride today? Or just an actress playing a role? I don’t know and I wish like hell I did. Last night, I left her to think. It was the last thing I wanted to do. When I brought up getting married for real, I’d hoped she would simply throw her arms around my neck with a squeal and say yes. Granted, it wasn’t the most romantic proposal ever. But I meant every word I said. I love that woman and I want to spend my life with her.

  “Is she still in bed?” Eryn asks.

  When I peeked in on her a few minutes ago after my restless night? “Yeah.”

  “Go wake her and get her packed up,” the middle Hope sister tells the youngest. “I’ll make a plan with the groom.”

  “Got it. She’d probably rather see my smiling face than your sourpuss scowl first thing in the morning.” Echo flashes her a cheesy grin.

  “Ha. My guess is that you can’t get it done without me and you’ll need the big guns.” Eryn flexes her biceps.

  They don’t look like big guns at all, and I try not to laugh at her gesture.

  Echo sticks her tongue out and hops around to the bedroom, disappearing inside with a quiet stealth I hadn’t imagined from such a little ball of chaos.

  “Coffee?” I ask Eryn.

  “I’m good. You’re not going to fight me?”

  “Depends. Where are you taking her?” Because I’m worried Eryn isn’t sold on me yet, and if she says she intends to take Ella back to Los Angeles, I will show her big guns—and one hell of a battle to go with them.

  “The day spa. Sam let us borrow his rental. We’re making sure her hair, makeup, and nails get done before this evening’s ceremony. Since my mom and dad decided work was more important than their daughter’s wedding, she has no one but us to be her support system. She has no one else to get ready with or help her into her dress. And she won’t have anyone to walk her down the aisle.” Eryn bites her lip. “My sister basically raised us, and she would never admit it but she has difficulty believing people will be there for her, that they’ll put her first. No one ever has. She wouldn’t let me or Echo do that because we were her responsibilities.”

  That tells me so much about Ella. She’s mentioned her situation with her parents in not so many words. I knew they were absorbed with work. I knew she cared a lot for her sisters. It didn’t occur to me that the emotional impact on her was so great…or that she’d have trouble believing I’m serious when I tell her I love her and will always be here for her.

  She needs me to show her.

  If she marries me today, she will have to sacrifice everything she knows, wants, and loves for something she’s afraid to believe in. She will have to trust in me—in the two of us—so utterly that she’s certain down to her bones.

  Have I given her enough of myself for that?

  “I understand. Thank you for making her situation clear to me.”

  Eryn’s expression changes, actually softens. I sense that she doesn’t show many people her emotional side. I also sense her feelings run deep. “I’ve never seen Ella in love. I don’t know what’s really going on here. My older sister is a lousy liar—at least to the people who know her well—and she’s never mentioned the job she supposedly came here for, so I assume you have something to do with that. But let me tell you now, she really, truly loves you. If you’re just using her for some scheme, you’re going to break her heart and she will never trust anyone with it again.”

  Damn, Ella’s middle sister is smart and has seen more than I hoped. I manage to keep my expression blank. “I very genuinely want to marry your sister. I’ve made that clear.”

  “I hear the tone of your voice. You think the ball is somehow in her court.” She shakes her head. “It’s still in yours, pal. If you really love her—”

  “I do.”

  Eryn lets out a deep breath, her shoulders relaxing, her expression opening. “Then you need to find a way to make my sister say yes when the moment comes. Echo and I will get her ready and there on time. The rest is up to you.”

  Message received loud and clear. Eryn is on my side…but only if I go the distance to prove I love Ella. I have to make the beauty I’ve only known for a handful of weeks believe that she is my world—now and always.

  “I’ve got this,” I say, though I’m not sure how else to prove my love. “Thanks.”

  She nods my way, then the bedroom door barges open. Echo emerges, carrying the newly altered wedding dress in a long gray garment bag, along with Ella’s suitcase.

  The latter alarms the hell out of me. “You’re taking all of her things?”

  “I don’t know what she’ll need,” Echo quips. “Besides, she insisted.”

  My heart stops. Does Ella think she’s leaving me for good? No. She can’t. We’re not done, just getting started.

  Eryn’s raised brow says, I told you so. Ella’s insistence underscores the fact that I have to step up my game. Echo looks guileless and unaware of the undercurrent in the room. “Why don’t you ladies wait for her in the car? I’ll send Ella down when she comes out.”

  “Nope.” Echo shakes her head. “I’m not stepping a foot out of here without my sister. If we don’t keep her on schedule t
his morning, she’ll be late for all her appointments.”

  “I’ll make sure she’s down in five minutes.”

  “Oh, I get it. You think you’re going to sneak in a pre-wedding quickie, huh?”

  “What?” I don’t want to take Ella to bed now. Well, I do, but that’s not uppermost in my mind.

  “You’re bold. I’ll give you that. But—”

  “Let’s wait in the parking lot,” Eryn cuts in. “Carson will send Ella down. He’ll make sure she reaches the spa in plenty of time.”

  As she ushers Echo out the door with Ella’s suitcase, Eryn slides me one last stare. She’s giving me her vote of confidence and I better not fuck it up. I nod, then she’s gone, shutting the door behind her.

  “Morning,” Ella says softly from the threshold of the bedroom a moment later.

  God, she looks a little red-eyed and uncertain but still beautiful. Clean and soft and female. Almost glowing.

  I know I don’t have much time, so I cut to the chase. “Morning. I’m sure you spent a lot of time thinking last night, but if you need to talk more—”

  “I…just cried.” She sighs. “Then I was so tired that I fell asleep. It was a busy day, and even after a couple of weeks with you I’m not used to the Olympic-level sexual gymnastics.”

  “Last night was intense,” I agree. If I play this right, I’ll have the rest of my life to try to sate the seemingly never-ending well of desire for Ella, but right now is about us. “Talk to me, sweetheart. Let me help you.”

  “I have to think this through alone.” She shrugs. “You and I have talked it over. I’m not sure there’s much more we can say. Now I just need to decide where I see my future. That’s not something you can do with or for me, no matter how much you want to. But I’ll be thinking about it all day.”

  What she says makes sense until I realize she may not have an answer for me until she’s walking down the aisle.

  I scrub a hand down my face. “Can I do or say anything to—”

  “No. This is on me now. But I know how to find you if I have questions or need to talk.” She holds her phone in her hand. “I know that’s not what you want to hear, but I can’t lie to you and tell you I have the answers now. I’ll do everything I can to find them by five o’clock. I don’t think eight hours is too long to ask for so I can decide the rest of my life.”

  “It’s not.” I’m just frustrated as hell at being left out of the decision.

  What can I do, say, give her to help her make up her mind?

  I’m drawing a blank.

  “I have to go,” she murmurs. “I’ll see you at the altar.”

  “How will I know…?”

  Ella hesitates a long moment. “I don’t even know if I’ll be sure what I’m going to do until I start walking up the aisle. I guess we’ll both find out then.”

  She brushes a soft kiss on my lips. I’m still sorting out whether it’s full of “until later” or “goodbye forever” when the door shuts behind her.

  Suddenly, I’m alone. And if I don’t figure something out, I have a suspicion I’m going to be even more lost for the rest of my days.

  I wish like hell my mom and Craig were still around. Getting married without them here is bittersweet. Not being sure if I’m tying the knot at all is far worse. I could sure use the sage advice they’d give me now. Hell, I would even settle for Edward’s counsel. He might have been a self-absorbed bastard to live with, but from everything of his I’ve read, he had sound logic and a good ear.

  In fact, I’ll bet Edward was a driven, ruthless planner, very much like Gregory Shaw. Both were known as crafty men of common sense and wisdom. Of course, I can’t talk to my rival. He’s the reason I’m in this position to start with. I can’t ask him for advice on sorting this situation out without confessing everything.

  Sighing, I turn that thought over in my head once, twice. Hmm… Suddenly, I have an idea.

  I reach for my phone.

  ELLA

  “You look beautiful.” Eryn’s dark eyes well with tears.

  For a girl who almost never shows her vulnerable side, I know that seeing me in the dress she purchased with love for her wedding to West must be hard. But everything on her face tells me she means what she says.

  “Thanks.” I turn to look at myself in the mirror on the back of the hotel room door. The sight is almost a shock.

  My dark hair has been wrangled into a low knot at my nape with curls framing my face and sloping down one shoulder. A braid circles my crown, making the perfect frame for the veil that falls to my feet, brushing the hem of the tulle skirt that parts in the front to reveal a beautiful swath of lace from décolletage to ankle. My makeup is perfect—lips rosy but not garish, dramatic black lashes and liner. Soft taupey-pink eye shadows soften the look. A blushing pink shade makes my cheeks appear naturally flushed, and a coordinating shade of highlight on the tops of my cheekbones has me positively glowing.

  The colors all accent my pale complexion and give me a fragile, doe-eyed appearance.

  Even if I’d had a year to conjure up precisely how I wanted to look as a bride, I couldn’t have imagined anything more perfect than this.

  “You look…wow.” Echo smiles and cups my shoulder. “Really. Wow.”

  “For being my younger and not-as-gorgeous sisters, you guys look pretty okay, too,” I tease with a wink, trying to lighten the mood. Echo has been asking me all day what’s wrong. Eryn hasn’t said a word, but I see her wheels turning.

  I don’t want them knowing anything. I don’t want to lay my decision at their feet. It’s not their fault and not their problem.

  “I need a pic of us all dressed up and looking like fine bitches,” Echo insists.

  We snap a couple of selfies, some serious, some goofy. For a moment, I forget that I’m still not sure whether I should gamble everything for a love this new and believe that Carson won’t let work and whatever else he deems important swallow him up…or do the sensible thing and go home to Los Angeles and resume my life as it was.

  A soft knock followed by a feminine murmur tells me Vasha wants in. “All ready?”

  Eryn opens the door. “We are.”

  “You’ve got about five minutes. Carson and the groomsmen are waiting to get into position for the ceremony. The string quartet is playing soft music to entertain the guests who have filed in. Everything looks perfect. I double-checked each detail myself.”

  Now she’s come to inspect me. She doesn’t say that, but I get the message.

  After checking my zipper, my shoes, and my teeth to make sure they’re free of lipstick, she ushers us all out of the dressing room and down the hallway. Other hotel guests stare as we make our way to the closed double doors outside the ballroom.

  “Let’s get this party started!” Vasha says as she clasps the handle. “Don’t forget. Echo, you enter when I motion to you. Eryn, you slide in behind her, hang at the back, and wait for my cue. Ella, you’ll hear the music change, then the double doors will open for you. That’s when you walk your way down the aisle to the man you love, right?”

  I nod.

  “Go get in position, ladies. The bride and I will be right behind you.”

  My sisters hug and kiss me, both looking misty-eyed and beautiful, before they line up at the massive entrance to the ballroom.

  Vasha pulls me aside. “Got any last-minute questions?”

  Um, should I actually marry the groom?

  I manage to shake my head. “I’m fine.”

 
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