By the time I get to the hotel—more of a resort equipped with a pool and a spa and a vineyard in the backyard—in St. Helena, it’s already a quarter to six. I ask the clerk at the front desk where to find the Magnolia meeting room, in case my friends really have gone insane and are still discussing dances, frills, and color schemes.
The man points me in the right direction and, after meandering along a few corridors, I find the designated room. A brass plaque outside the door identifies it as Magnolia.
I poke my head in and sigh in relief at finding the space empty. I’m about to leave to go check in when a phone starts ringing inside.
There’s only one table in the room, and its polished wooden surface is cleared of objects. Where’s the ringing coming from? I follow the sound, kneeling down and crawling under the table where I find the device lodged between a chair and a table leg.
Without checking the caller ID, I pick up.
“Oh, hello,” comes a surprised man’s voice from the other side. “Err, is Lana there?”
Lana, huh? She’s Winter’s best friend. Who, if I remember correctly, is dating Christian Slade, America’s number one heartthrob and, until recent events, Hollywood’s most wanted bachelor. Could this be him on the phone?
And just because I’m an asshole, I say, “Sorry, who did you say it was?”
“Christian, her boyfriend.” He confirms my deductions, sounding pissed enough.
An evil laugh plays in my head; it’s not every day that one gets to mess with the so-called Sexiest Man Alive.
“Sorry, man,” I say. “Lana forgot her phone.”
“Where?” His tone has turned murderous.
And since I’m not a complete douche, I stop the teasing. “Meeting room. She must’ve dropped it while discussing flower arrangements or something. But mine is just an educated guess, unfortunately; I didn’t get here in time for the wedding planning session.”
“You sound devastated,” Mr. Famous Actor says. I decide I like this dude. “And who are you?”
“Archibald Hill, the best man. Listen, man, I’ll drop off your girl’s phone at the concierge and leave a message to call you back, sound good?”
“Thanks, I guess?”
We’ve barely hung up when a cute brunette pokes her head into the meeting room. Her long brown hair cascades past her shoulders in soft waves, and she’s wearing one of those flowy maxi dresses in a pink flower print. She’s missing a colorful band tied over the forehead, or she’d fit in perfectly with Berkeley’s hippies of the seventies.
I dangle the phone in my hands. “Looking for this?”
Her deep blue eyes widen in surprise. “Oh, thank goodness it’s here.” Lana sighs in relief and closes the distance between us, taking the phone from me.
“Your boyfriend called,” I inform her. “He wasn’t too thrilled to speak with me. You should call him back.”
Her eyebrows draw together in a curious frown as she studies me. “You must be the missing best man.”
I grin. “How did you come to that conclusion?”
She smiles in return. “I’ve heard stories about you.”
“Only good things, I hope?”
The smile turns coy. “Mostly about how my best friend had to save your ass, literally, and on multiple occasions…”
I chuckle at that. So, this sassy, no-bullshit attitude is to be expected not only from the bride-to-be, but her friends as well?
“Touché,” I concede. “What did I miss? Was the meeting really necessary?”
Lana gives me a long, glad-we-understand-each-other stare, and then smiles. “It was mostly a schedule review of the few mandatory events for the bridesmaids and groomsmen.”
“Such as?” I ask, worried.
“Well, tomorrow we’re going wine tasting, which is optional. Wednesday is dedicated to the hen and stag parties, which you were supposed to organize for the stags.” I snort. Tucker took care of that, too. “Planning the bachelorette party was one of my duties as maid of honor, too.”
“Wait,” I cut her off. “You’re the maid of honor?”
She eyes me sideways. “Something wrong with that?”
“No, but… err… I assumed Winter’s sister would be the maid of honor since she’s family and all… Nothing personal.”
Lana’s face clouds. “Yeah, but we all had a fallout last year.”
“I’m familiar with the backstory,” I say, remembering Winter’s ramblings in Thailand about how her twin sister had had an affair with their best friend’s boyfriend. This woman’s ex-boyfriend.
Lana seems taken aback, and blushes. “Winter told you?”
“The very first night we met.” I chuckle. “Probably when she thought she’d never see any of us again once the expedition ended. And it’s your fault Winter spilled the beans.”
Lana scowls. “How is it my fault?”
“You made her promise to call her sister, and indirectly stirred up all the feelings she ended up ranting about later. But I thought the Knowles sisters had patched things up.”
Lana’s frown relaxes. “They’re in a good place now; we all are. But the maid of honor role requires a lot of interaction with other people. All our friends…” She pauses, as if searching for the right words. “…from before. And not everyone has forgiven Summer, so I guess Winter asked me to be the maid of honor to shelter her sister from blowbacks and unpleasantries.”
“Makes sense.” I nod. “Anything else important from the meeting?”
She checks a sheet of paper in her hands. “Not really. Thursday is a recovery spa day. Friday is free until the rehearsal dinner at eight. Saturday, the ceremony and reception. And on Sunday, it’s over.”
I low-whistle. “And you guys, what? Spent over an hour discussing this?”
Lana’s lips part in a wide smile. “Well, Tucker got a little carried away with the minutiae.” Then the maid of honor eyes me appraisingly once again. “If we could average out his fastidiousness and your devil-may-care attitude, we’d have two perfectly balanced groomsmen.”
I link my arm with hers and steer Lana out of the meeting room. “I think we’ll get along just fine. Any task regarding the best man and maid of honor specifically?”
She looks up at me. “Only walking down the aisle together, and joining the groom and bride on the dance-floor for the first dance. Can you dance?”
I let go of her elbow, take her hand, and guide Lana in a pirouette, saying, “I’m the master of the dance-floor.”
She chuckles. “Oh my gosh, Winter was right, you’re such a flirt.”
I wink. “Don’t worry, I don’t interfere with other people’s relationships.”
“Oh, I’m not worried.”
“So, when is the famous boyfriend going to join us?”
“Why? You want to ask for an autograph?”
“After the conversation we had? I think he loves me already, he’s going to ask for mine.”
“Why? What did you tell him?”
I grin ear to ear. “Nothing at all.”
We stop in the hotel lobby and Lana glowers at me. “I’d better call Christian back. See you later.”
I make a mock military salute and watch her disappear down a corridor, that flowery dress billowing behind her in soft waves of fabric. Once Lana is gone, I turn to the concierge to check in.
Minutes later, I jingle the key to room 452, my lair for the next week, in my hands and turn toward the elevators the receptionist has directed me to. But before I can take a step forward, all the air gets sucked out of my lungs as I catch sight of Winter standing in the middle of the entrance hall, head bent as she checks out a text on her phone. Only, the bride-to-be is no longer the goofy, messy person I’m used to. She looks all put together in a skin-tight black dress with a low neckline. The hem of the skirt reaches just above her knees, leaving exposed the bottom half of her long, lean legs… and her feet! Even more outside her character, she’s wearing a pair of black leather pumps with stiletto heels so high and thin… They’re a kick right in my gut. But it’s not just the shoes; her hair, usually a tangled mass of soft waves, is straightened to a silken golden-white curtain that hangs down to her waist.
Logan, my friend, you lucky bastard.
For the first time, the snake of jealousy coils in my chest and stands to attention for the woman before me. Yes, I made a pass at Winter when we first met, the same way I’d do with any attractive woman. But I never regretted our relationship turning to a solid friendship or her choosing Logan over me… at least until now. It’s a primal, irrational instinct.
I shake my head.
Get a grip, pal.
How can I be jealous of my best friend for getting married when it’s the last thing I ever want to do? Logan is about to give up his freedom; I sure as hell don’t envy him that. He must be crazy to voluntarily put metaphorical shackles on his wrists. Because that’s what the rings in my pocket are—handcuffs. But staring at the woman before me, I can’t help but wonder… Is he really crazy?
Yeah-ha, dude. Come on.
No matter how formidable the bride, getting married in this day and age is folly. It has been since the certificate wasn’t needed any longer to have sex.
Conclusion made, I plaster a cocksure grin on my face and go greet the bride-to-be.
“Snowflake,” I call.
She stares up at me, eyes widening, but before she can say anything, I’m crushing her into a bear hug. And I swear I didn’t smell her hair, which might or might not have the most delicious coconut scent.
Instead of returning the hug, Winter tries to pull away. “Excuse me? What are you doing? I don’t know you.” Her hands land on my chest, pushing. “Let me go,” she orders.
I obey, and take in her angry face, which is almost an exact replica of Winter’s. Almost being the key word here. This version has a slightly pointier chin and a narrower nose. Small, imperceptible distinctions, but that could make all the difference in the world and open an ocean of possibilities. And also explain my gut reaction to her.
“You’re not Winter,” I say. “You’re her ev—er… twin.”
Summer Knowles’ eyes narrow. “Were you about to say evil twin?”
“No.” I make big, innocent eyes.
“Yes, you were,” she puffs, and then she starts hyperventilating while rambling to no one in particular. “This is perfect, absolutely freaking fantastic. Having half of the people at this wedding hating me wasn’t enough. Oh, no. My sister had to blab personal details of my life to the other half as well. So, everyone here can hate me.”
I blink. “I don’t hate you.”
She refocuses on me and gives me a once over. “But you judge. I know who you are. You’re the missing best man.”
I bend in a half bow, saying, “In the flesh, pleased to meet you.”
“You can switch the charm off,” Summer snaps. “My sister has warned me about you.”
I straighten up and place a hand over my heart. “You wound me, and who’s judging now?” Her mouth gapes open. Ah-ha, gotcha. I take advantage of her momentary lack of speech and continue, “May I still introduce myself?” And before she can say no, I extend the hand resting over my chest. “Archibald Hill.”
She reluctantly takes it. “Summer Knowles.”
Our eyes lock, and she lets go of my hand as quickly as if holding a hot potato.
“So, where is everyone?” I ask. “Do you guys have plans for dinner?”
“You just missed them; Logan, Winter, and Tucker went into town to eat. But you might still be in time to catch up.”
“And you’re not going?”
“No,” Summer replies, glacial, and before I can ask why, she adds, “Well, it was nice meeting you. See you around.”
Without another word, Miss Uptight spins on her sinfully thin heels and walks away, hips swaying tantalizingly.
Oh, I will see you around, Summer Knowles. Nothing better to whet my appetite than a bit of a challenge.
Up to the fourth floor in my room, I drop off my bag, change into a clean T-shirt and sweatpants, and ten minutes later I’m already bored to death. I could call Logan and join the others in town as Summer suggested, but they must be halfway through dinner by now. Instead, I grab the remote and turn on the TV. I end up watching hockey on ESPN. The Stanley Cup final, Game 1, the Los Angeles Kings vs the Chicago Blackhawks.
This ought to be an exciting game. I might as well go downstairs and follow the match while enjoying a beer and a burger. I don’t bother changing back into proper pants, and am half-tempted to leave wearing hotel slippers, but that’s where I draw the laziness line. I pull on a pair of white sneakers and head to the resort’s sports bar.
As expected, the game is being shown on every TV screen around. What I don’t expect, however, is the company. And what a wonderful surprise, I might add. The only other patron of the bar is seated on a high stool, impossibly thin stiletto heels wedged in the metal footrest, and a now-familiar curtain of white-blond hair covering her entire back.
I grab the stool on her right, unleashing my most dashing smile. “Hello, again.”
Summer turns to me, dropping the burger she was eating on the plate, and licks barbecue sauce off her fingers. “Hi?” she says.
A question more than a greeting.
“Hockey fan?” I ask, sitting down and signaling to the bartender to come my way.
“Yes,” Summer replies curtly.
We’re interrupted by the guy behind the bar. “What can I get you?”
“A bacon cheeseburger with fries and a beer, please.” I look at Summer’s half-empty glass of red wine and ask, “You want another one?”
She studies me for a long moment and then nods almost imperceptibly.
I turn to the barman with a bright smile. “And another of the same for the lady.”
“Will you be charging this to a room?” the barman asks.
“Yeah, room 452, please.”
Summer keeps looking at me. “You know we’re in the wine capital of the country, right? Shouldn’t you try something local?”
“I’m sure the beer is going to be craft and from a fancy brewery nearby with a price tag to match.”
Summer gives me a little smirk. “You’re probably right.” She raises her wine glass. “They’re selling this for fifteen dollars a glass. Ridiculous.”
“Is it good, at least?”
“No.” She takes a sip, the hint of a smile curling her lips as she lowers the glass. “Good doesn’t cut it. This is easily the best red I’ve ever had.”
The bartender returns with her wine and my beer. The pint glass isn’t branded, but the ale inside looks richer and denser than any run-of-the-mill commercial brew. I take a sip to confirm my suspicions.
Summer tilts her head toward me. “How about your fancy beer?”
I swirl the liquid in my mouth, pretending to be an expert taster. Mmm. If I had to describe it with one word, I’d say buttery.
Still, I wrinkle my nose, as any respectable beer snob would do, declaring, “Acceptable.”
Summer gives me another playful smile. “Hard to please much?”
Four simple words that send an electric spark coursing through my body. Every hair on my arms is standing to attention.
I’m getting mixed signals here. Hot and cold. One moment she’s the ice queen, and the next she’s sort of talking dirty to me?
As if realizing she’s been flirting, Summer lowers her gaze and takes another bite of her burger. But not before I note the faint blush creeping up her cheeks.
Poses the question of which approach I should take. Should I be blunt, or subtle? Could I be both?
For now, I sense it’d be better to steer the conversation toward safer waters.
Something happens on screen and Summer groans. I stare at the TV; the camera is doing a close up of a Kings player stuck in the penalty box.
“Did he deserve it?” I ask.
“Oh, yes. Manual boarding, but sucks anyway.”
Finally, the bartender drops my food on the counter alongside a receipt. I sign the bill and take a bite out of a fry, asking, “Are you a fan of sports in general, or just hockey?”
“Only ice hockey. My ex-boyfriend got me into it and, well, he’s long gone, but after following the Kings for fifteen years the love for the game stuck. You?”
I chew down the first mouthful of my delicious burger, swallow, and say, “I’m out of the country too often with no reception to follow any sport. But I enjoy all the classics: hockey, football, basketball…”
“What about baseball? Isn’t that the classic?”
“Nah, baseball is only good for when I have jet lag.”
Summer polishes off the last of her fries and cleans her fingers on a paper napkin. “How so?”
“Whenever I put on a game, I fall asleep within the first ten minutes. Pretty handy when you travel as much as I do.”
She chuckles. “Guess you’re right; baseball can be less than thrilling. Anyway, the only other game I watch is the Super Bowl, but I do it more for the commercials than the sport. I don’t travel that much, so I don’t need a jet lag fixer, but tell Winter, I bet she could use the tip.”
“Hey, I never asked. What do you do for a living?”
“I work in a skincare company, in the lab. I’m a chemical engineer; I’m responsible for the formulation and development of the company’s foundation line.”
And just like that, an image of her in a doctor’s white coat and nothing else but sky-high stiletto heels pops into my mind. I take a sip of beer and swallow. “A lab rat, uh? I wouldn’t have imagined.”
Pinning me with a stare, she asks, “And what would you have guessed?”
I can’t voice any of the dirty, dirty thoughts swirling around in my head, but say, “I would’ve pinned you down as more of a front-end cat. Like PR or marketing. Event planning, maybe?”
“Heaven spare me, I’ll leave that to Tucker.” She smiles. “Poor bastard. How my sister and Logan roped him into organizing this wedding is still beyond me.”
“Well, Tucker is our logistics man… so.”
“Still, camping supplies and survival gear are a far cry from frills and flowers. He seemed so stressed at the meeting you skipped.”
“Hey, I had an emergency.”
Deep blue eyes pierce me. “What kind of emergency?”
I shuffle through the possible answers:
Option number one: A sleepover involving a redhead who made me work extra time last night and miss my wakeup call today?
Nah, buddy, the lady is already prejudiced enough thanks to whatever stories her sister has been feeding her, which I will have to investigate later.
Option number two: A slip-up with the wedding rings and their unexpected retrieval inside the fridge? Cute, self-deprecating enough. This is the way to go, I tell her the story.
Summer laughs. “The fridge, uh? How did the box end up in there?”
“I swear I still have no idea.”
We chuckle again, and I’m happy to note she finally appears more relaxed. Nothing super obvious, but her mouth doesn’t go taut the moment she stops speaking, her body language seems less rigid, and even her eyes have more of a spark. “But promise never to tell Tucker or Winter,” I add.
“You bet,” she says. “Anyway, you’re lucky you missed that meeting. Tucker was super picky, and my sister… She’s gone a little bridezilla.”
“Yeah, I know she’s usually the laid-back queen, but getting married has made her obsessive.”
“Is that why you didn’t join them for dinner?”
Summer’s easy-going expression darkens. “No,” she says. “I just wasn’t feeling that social.” She stares at the counter for a long moment before adding, “To be honest, I can’t wait for the week to be over. I’m dreading the next few days.”
I don’t know why she’s opening up to me. It might be the two glasses of wine, or that I already know about the skeletons in her closet. But I’ll gladly use any breach into the mystery that is Summer Knowles.
“Because of what happened with Lana? I met her earlier, and she’s cool.”
“She’s not the issue; everybody else is. My entire old circle of friends.”
“Are they being nasty?”
“That’s what I’m expecting, but I haven’t talked to any of them in months, so I don’t really know…”
“Maybe they won’t be as bad.”
“Yeah, sure, and tomorrow the sky will part and unicorns will come galloping down the rainbows.”
I swallow the last bite of my burger. “Sarcastic much?”
“Realistic. I foresee dark times ahead. I’m going to spend this week in isolation, and that’s the optimistic outcome.”
“Hey, we can be buddies if you ever feel lonely.”
Summer picks up her glass, eyeing me with half a smile. “Are you propositioning me?”
“Hey, I’m single, you’re single. I offer a week of great, no-strings-attached fun. But if you prefer to mope alone over spilled milk…”
She takes a sip of wine while studying my face, her eyes lowering to my mouth.
I’m already thinking I have this in the bag when she says, “Thanks, but no, thanks.”
My expression must crumble, because Summer adds, “Oh, please, don’t sad-dog me, I’m sure you’ll find another hook up by tomorrow night.”
“May I ask why the hard pass?” I make a half-cute, half-dismayed pout. “Am I not handsome enough?”
“Oh, you’re very handsome.” She finishes the wine and drops the glass on the counter, her eyes returning to my mouth. “Even if I’ve never much cared for”—her hands waver in the general direction of my chin—“facial hair.”
“You mean my beard?” I exclaim, pulling at it. “Ladies all over the world have loved it.”
“And that’s the other thing. Lately, I’m trying to make smart decisions—”
“And smart and fun are mutually exclusive in your vocabulary?”
“I’ve slept with three men total in my life, and you’ve probably slept with as many women in the past month, if not more. This arrangement you propose wouldn’t carry the same weight for both of us.” She extends a hand toward me. “Friends?”
I groan. “What is it with the Knowles sisters and just wanting to be my friends?”
Summer smiles. “Genes?”
I take her hand, not yet ready to accept defeat. As I get up, I pull close to her, bending down to whisper in her ear, “I’m in room 452 if you change your mind. I can make you forget your name if that’s what you want.”