TUESDAY—ELEVEN DAYS BEFORE THE WEDDING
Jane! I thought you were never going to get here!”
“I came as quickly as I could,” Jane said, trying to keep the annoyance out of her tone as she allowed herself to be herded into her friend Elise’s house. She exchanged resigned smiles with her fellow bridesmaids—the ones who had obviously taken Elise’s “Emergency bridesmaids meeting at my house NOW!” text more seriously than Jane had. Gia and Wendy were sprawled on Elise’s couch, braiding some kind of dried grass–type thing. Wendy, Jane’s best friend, blew her a kiss.
Jane tried to perform her traditional catching of Wendy’s kiss—it was their thing, dating back to childhood—but Elise thrust a mug of tea into Jane’s hand before it could close over the imaginary kiss. Earlier that summer, Elise had embraced and then discarded a plan to start her wedding reception with some kind of complicated cocktail involving tea, and as a result, Jane feared she and the girls were doomed to a lifetime of Earl Grey. Their beloved bridezilla had thought nothing of special ordering twenty-seven un-returnable boxes of premium English tea leaves. She also apparently thought nothing of forcing her friends to endure the rejected reception beverage again and again. And again.
“Jane’s here, so now you can tell us about the big emergency,” Gia said. “And whatever it is, I’m sure she’ll figure out a solution.” She smiled at Jane. “You’re so…smart.”
Jane had a feeling that smart wasn’t the word Gia initially meant to use. The girls—well, Gia and Elise, anyway—were always telling Jane to loosen up. But they also relied on her to solve their problems. They liked having it both ways. She was the den mother, but they were forever teasing her about being too rigid. Which was kind of rich, lately, coming from Elise, who had turned into a matrimonial drill sergeant. Jane put up with it because she loved them. Besides, somebody had to be the responsible one.
“Well,” Jane teased, “this had better be a capital-E emergency because I was in the middle of having my costume for Toronto Comicon fitted when you texted.” She opened the calf-length trench coat she’d thrown over her costume at the seamstress’s when Elise’s text arrived. It was the kind of coat women wore when seducing their boyfriends—or so she assumed, not having personally attempted to seduce anyone since Felix. She should probably just get rid of the coat because there were likely no seductions in her future, either.
“Hello!” Gia exclaimed. “What is that?”
“Xena: Warrior Princess,” Wendy answered before Jane could.
“I have no idea what that means, but you look hot,” Gia said.
Jane did a little twirl. The costume was really coming together. The seamstress had done a kick-ass job with the leather dress, armor, and arm bands, and all Jane needed to do was figure out something for Xena’s signature weapon and she’d be set. “It was a cult TV show from the 1990s,” she explained. Gia was a bit younger than the rest of them. But who was Jane kidding? The real reason Gia didn’t know about Xena was that she was a Cool Girl. As a model—an honest-to-goodness, catwalk-strutting, appearing-in-Calvin-Klein-ads model—she was too busy with her fabulous life to have time to watch syndicated late-night TV. “It’s set in a sort of alternative ancient Greece, but it’s leavened with other mythologies…” She trailed off because the explanation sounded lame even to her fantasy-novelist, geek-girl ears.
“Xena basically goes around kicking ass, and then she and her sidekick get it on with some lesbian action,” Wendy said, summing things up in her characteristically concise way.
“Really?” Gia narrowed her eyes at Jane. “Is there something you’re trying to tell us?”
“No!” Jane protested.
“Because you haven’t had a boyfriend since Felix,” Gia went on. “And you guys broke up, what? Four years ago?”
“Five,” Wendy said.
It was true. But what her friends refused to accept was that she was single by choice. She had made a sincere effort, with Felix, whom she’d met halfway through university and stayed with until she was twenty-six, to enter the world of love and relationships that everyone was always insisting was so important. Felix had taught her many things, foremost among them that she was better off alone.
“You know we’ll love you no matter what,” Gia said. “Who you sleep with doesn’t make a whit of difference.”
“I’m not gay, Gia! I just admire Xena. She didn’t need men to get shit done. We could all—”
A very loud episode of throat clearing from Elise interrupted Jane’s speech on the merits of independence, whether you were a pseudo-Greek warrior princess or a modern girl trying to get along in the world.
“Sorry.” Jane sometimes forgot that most people did not share her views of love and relationships.
“I’m sure this is all super interesting, you guys?” Elise said. “But we have a serious problem on our hands?” She was talking fast and ending declarative statements with question marks—sure signs she was stressed. Elise always sounded like an auctioneer on uppers when she was upset. “I need to grab my phone because I’m expecting the cake people to call? So sit down and brace yourselves and I’ll be right back?”
Jane sank into a chair and warily eyed a basket of spools of those brown string-like ribbon things—the kind that were always showing up tied around Mason jars of layered salads on Pinterest. She wasn’t really sure how or why Elise had decided not to outsource this stuff like normal people did when they got married. The whole wedding had become a DIY-fest. “What are we doing with this stuff?” she asked the others.
“No idea,” said Wendy, performing a little eye roll. “I’m just doing what I’m told.”
Jane grinned. Although she, Wendy, Gia, and Elise were a tightly knit foursome, they also sorted into pairs of best friends: Jane and Wendy had grown up together and had met Elise during freshman orientation at university. They’d picked up Gia when they were seniors and Gia was a freshman—Elise had been her resident assistant—RA—and the pair had become fast friends despite the age difference.
“We are weaving table runners out of raffia ribbon,” Gia said. She dropped her strands and reached for her purse. “Slide that tea over here—quick, before she gets back.”
“God bless you,” Jane said when Gia pulled a flask of whiskey out of her purse and tipped some into Jane’s mug. If the “emergency” that had pulled Jane away from her cosplay fitting—not to mention a planned evening of writing—was going to involve table runners, she was going to need something to dull the edges a bit.
Elise reappeared. Jane practiced her nonchalant face as she sipped her “tea” and tried not to cough. She wasn’t normally much of a drinker, but desperate times and all that.
“I didn’t want to repeat myself, so I’ve been holding out on Gia and Wendy?” Elise said. “But there’s been a…disruption to the wedding plans?”
I love you, but God help me, those are declarative sentences. Sometimes Jane had trouble turning off her inner editor. Job hazard.
“Oh my God, are you leaving Jay?” Wendy asked.
“Why would you say that?” Elise turned to Wendy in bewilderment.
Now, that was a legitimate question, the inner editor said—at least in the sense that it was meant to end with a question mark. The actual content of Wendy’s question was kind of insensitive. But Wendy had trouble with change, and Elise pairing off and doing the whole till-death-do-us-part thing? That was some major change for their little friend group. Jane might have had trouble with it, too, except it was plainly obvious to anyone with eyeballs that Elise was head-over-heels, one hundred percent gaga for her fiancé.
“I’m kidding!” Wendy said, a little too vehemently. Elise looked like she might have to call for smelling salts.
“Take a breath,” Gia said to Elise, “and tell us what’s wrong.”
Elise did as instructed, then flopped into a chair. “Jay’s brother is coming to the wedding.”
“Jay has a brother?” Jane asked. Though she was guilty of maybe not paying one hundred percent attention to every single wedding-related detail—for example, she’d recused herself from the debate over the merits of sage green versus grass green for the ribbons that would adorn the welcome bags left in the guests’ hotel rooms—she was pretty sure she had a handle on all the major players.
“His name is Cameron MacKinnon.”
That didn’t clear things up. “Jay Smith has a brother named Cameron MacKinnon?” she asked. Was that even possible?
“Half brother,” Elise said. “You know how Jay’s mom is single?” It was true. There had been no “father of the groom” in Elise’s carefully drafted program. “Well, she split from Jay’s dad when Jay was nine. Then a couple years later, she had a brief relationship with another man. Cameron is the product of that—that’s why his last name is MacKinnon and Jay’s is Smith.”
“But he wasn’t always going to come to the wedding?” Gia asked. “Were they estranged?”
“They’re not particularly close. There are eleven years between them—Cameron was in first grade when Jay left for school—but they’re not estranged,” Elise said. “He wasn’t going to be able to make it to the wedding because he was supposed to be in Iraq. He was in the army. But now he’s…not.”
“That sounds ominous,” Wendy said.
“Look, here’s the thing,” Elise said, sitting up straight, her voice suddenly and uncharacteristically commanding. “Cameron is a problem. He’s wild. He drives too fast, drinks too much, sleeps around. You name it—if it’s sketchy, he’s into it.”
“And this is Jay’s brother,” Jane said. Because no offense, she liked Jay fine, but Jay was…a tad underwhelming. He was an accountant. No matter what they were doing—football game, barbecue, hiking—he dressed in dark jeans and a polo shirt, like it was casual Friday at the office. To be honest, Jane had never really been sure what Elise saw in him. The girls were always telling her to loosen up, but compared to Jay, she was the life of the party.
“Yes,” Elise said. “Cameron is Jay’s brother, and he must be stopped.”
“Dun, dun, dun!” Wendy mock-sang.
“Hey, I can totally switch gears and weave this thing into a noose,” Gia said, holding up a lopsided raffia braid.
“I’m not kidding.”
Elise’s tone made everyone stop laughing and look up. The upspeak was gone, and the bride had become a warrior, eyes narrowed, lips pursed. “He’s a high school dropout. He burned down a barn outside Thunder Bay when he was seventeen. He was charged with arson, the whole deal. Jay says his mother still hasn’t lived it down. And there’s talk he got a girl pregnant in high school.”
“What happened?” asked a rapt Gia.
Elise shrugged. “Her family moved out of town, so no one really knows.”
“Wow,” Wendy said, echoing Jane’s thoughts. Jane had initially assumed Elise was being melodramatic about this black-sheep brother—as she was about nearly everything wedding related—but this guy did sound like bad news.
“Anyway.” Elise brandished an iPad in front of her like it was a weapon. “Cameron MacKinnon is not ruining my wedding. And if he’s left to his own devices, he will. From what Jay says, he won’t be able to help it.” She poked at the iPad. “This changes everything. We need to redo the schedule—and the job list.”
The words job list practically gave Jane hives. Elise had turned into a total bridezilla, but by unspoken agreement, the bridesmaids had been going along with whatever she wanted. It was the path of least resistance. But also, they truly wanted Elise to have the wedding of her dreams. Even if it was painful for everyone else.
But, oh, the job list. The job list was like the Hydra, a serpentine monster you could never get on top of. You crossed off a job, and two more sprouted to take its place. Jane had already hand-stenciled three hundred invitations, planned and executed two showers, joined Pinterest as instructed for the express purpose of searching out “homemade bunting,” tried on no fewer than twenty-three dresses—all purple—and this Cameron thing aside, it looked like today was going to be spent weaving table runners. And they still had the bachelorette party and the rehearsal dinner to get through, never mind the main event.
It boggled the mind. Elise was an interior designer, so of course she cared how things looked, but even so, Jane was continuously surprised at how much the wedding was preoccupying her friend. She could only hope they would get their funny, creative, sweet friend back after it was all over.
“Cameron is coming to town tomorrow,” Elise said. “I don’t know why he couldn’t just arrive a day ahead of the wedding like the rest of the out-of-town guests, but it is what it is.” She let the iPad clatter onto the coffee table. “I don’t even know how to add this to the job list, but somehow, we have to babysit Cameron for the next week and a half.”
“We?” Wendy echoed.
“Yes. He needs to be supervised at all times until the wedding—until after the post-wedding breakfast, actually. Then he can wreak whatever havoc he wants.”
“Hang on,” Jane said. “I agree that he sounds like bad news. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, he did something horrible and got arrested tomorrow. I don’t really see how that would have an impact on your wedding at all, because—”
Elise looked up, either ignoring or legitimately not hearing Jane. “You can’t do it, Gia. You’re my maid of honor, and I need you at my side at all times.”
“Sure thing,” Gia said.
Easy for her to say. Gia had purposely not taken any modeling jobs the two weeks before the wedding. She had plenty of time to lounge around braiding dried foliage and looking effortlessly beautiful in sweatpants. Also, there was the part where she was a millionaire.
Elise started scrolling through some kind of calendar app on her iPad. “Now, tomorrow we’re supposed to be spray-painting the tea sets gold.”
Jane looked around. Spray-painting the tea sets gold? Why was no one else confused by that sentence?
“But we’ll have to do that in the afternoon,” Elise went on, “because—”
“I have to work tomorrow,” Wendy said. And when Elise looked up blankly, she added, “Tomorrow is Wednesday.”
Jane was about to protest that she had to work tomorrow, too. Book seven of the Clouded Cave series wasn’t going to write itself. Just because she didn’t have to be in court like Wendy didn’t mean her job wasn’t important. She had an inbox full of fan mail from readers clamoring for the next book, not to mention a contractual deadline that got closer every day.
Elise continued, seemingly oblivious to her friends’ weekday employment obligations. “Tomorrow we also need to do a practice run of boutonniere, corsage, and bouquet making. I finagled a vendor pass to the commercial fruit and flower market, but we need to get there early. So we should do the flowers in the morning and paint the tea sets in the afternoon. We’ll meet in Mississauga at five thirty, but someone needs to pick up Cameron and make sure he behaves all day.”
“I’ll do it,” said Jane, mentally calculating that to be at the suburban flower market by five thirty, she’d have to get up at four a.m. Also, there was the part about spending the afternoon spray-painting tea sets. It didn’t take a genius to figure out which was the lesser of the two proverbial evils. She could babysit this Cameron dude. She’d treat him like a character in one of her books—figure him out, then make him do her bidding. “Give me the wild man’s flight info, and I’ll pick him up.”
“I thought it would be best if you did it,” Elise said, still scrolling and tapping like a maniac. “I mean, your job is so—”
Wait for it.
But at least she hadn’t said anything about—
“And you’re so responsible. I feel like this is your kind of task.”
Jane stifled a sigh. Everyone always called her responsible, but they made it sound so…boring. She preferred to think of herself as conscientious.
“I really, really appreciate this, Jane,” Elise said, finally looking up from her iPad and gracing Jane with a smile so wide and sincere that it almost made her breath catch.
Yes. Right. That was why she was voluntarily submitting to this bridesmaid torture-gig. Her friend Elise was still somewhere inside the bridezilla that was currently manning the controls, and she was so, so happy to be marrying the love of her life. That was the important thing. It made even Jane’s heart, which was usually immune to these kinds of sentiments, twist a little. A wedding wasn’t in her future, and she was fine with that, but all of this planning made her think of her parents’ wedding pictures, the pair of them all decked out in their shaggy 1970s glory. Had they been in love like Elise and Jay, before the accident? Maybe at the start, but probably not for long, given her father’s addiction. He was never violent, but he wasn’t very…lovable.
But now was not the time for a pity party, so she smiled back at Elise. “No problem.”
“You need to meet his plane, take him to Jay’s, and make sure he doesn’t do anything crazy. Jay will be home as soon as he can after work, and then you can leave for the evening and we’ll figure out the rest of the schedule from there.”
Elise reached out and squeezed her hand. “Seriously. Making sure Cameron doesn’t ruin my wedding is the best present you could give me.”
She waved away Elise’s thanks. This was going to be a piece of cake. Or at least better than tea set spray-painting duty. After all, how bad could this Cameron MacKinnon guy be?