I hadn’t had a drink in weeks. But right now I needed at least four straight shots of tequila. All week I’d been worried about tonight. Being the best man in Marcus’s wedding was something I’d always expected. But now that it meant walking down the aisle with the maid of honor, who also happened to be the one girl I was in love with and could never have, it was going to be pure hell.
I’d been busy all week helping Rock and Trisha get their house ready for inspection. We’d painted the boys’ room blue and bought them bunk beds, along with a television and an Xbox. Then we’d painted Daisy’s room a pale yellow, and Trisha had insisted she have a canopy bed. Daisy called it her princess room. There was a little pink-and-purple table with two chairs sitting in the corner with a tiny little tea set on it. Then there was a dollhouse that had more rooms than any doll could need, with everything from a high chair to working ceiling fans in it.
I was exhausted, but I was also positive that the inspection was going to be a success. Now, tonight, instead of working I was here trying like hell not to look over at Amanda. I’d gotten a glimpse of her when she’d walked into the beach house the Hardys were renting for the reception. She was wearing some slinky little pink dress and matching heels that made her legs look even longer. I’d jerked my gaze off her quickly. My intention was to pretend like she wasn’t here. It was the only way I could do this.
“Preston.” Her soft voice called my name, and I turned around to see she’d walked over to me. Her hair was left down instead of up like the other girls’. It hung in perfect silky golden curls down her back. Her very bare back. There was hardly anything to that dress she was wearing. I tore my eyes off her dress before I caved and checked to see if she was wearing a bra, and I met her gaze.
“Manda,” I replied. Wishing the bar was open already. I needed it for the rehearsal, not after the rehearsal.
“I heard about Trisha and Rock getting the kids. I wanted to tell you how happy I was for y’all.”
Dammit. She was going to be all nice and friendly. Did she not understand that she tied me up in knots? I was trying to find a way to live without her. This was going to f**k up everything. I’d made a little progress. It was shot to hell now.
“Thanks. The kids are real happy about it,” I replied, and looked away from her. Anywhere but at those green eyes that I’d seen darken during an orgasm and twinkle with laughter when I’d said something funny.
“Are you doing okay?” she asked.
What kind of question was that? Did it look like I was doing okay?
“I’m always doing okay, Manda.”
I could hear her swift intake of breath. What had she expected me to say? The truth? She couldn’t handle the truth.
“That’s good. I’m glad to hear that. I’ll, uh, see you later,” she stammered, and I looked down at her as she walked away. The back of her dress scooped down all the way to her lower back. Any farther and her perfect little ass would be showing. Dammit, did her brother not require her to wear more clothes than that?
She stopped walking, and I tore my gaze off her ass to see who she’d stopped to talk to. Jason Stone. His arms wrapped around her in a hug, and the blood in my head started pounding furiously against my temple. He was touching her bare back. Had he touched her other places? Had he touched her places only I’d touched her?
I stormed for the doors leading outside to the beach. I needed some fresh air, and I needed space. Why had she brought him here? I’d thought the story that she was seeing him was a lie to cover up the truth. But maybe it hadn’t been a lie. Maybe she had run straight to him and his f**king jet. I slammed both hands, palms down, on the wooden railing outside and let out a stream of curse words. I’d known this day would come. Seeing her with someone else. I just didn’t know it would be so damn soon.
“You okay out here? We kinda need that railing for the wedding. If you could refrain from destroying it, that would be much appreciated.”
I turned my head to look at Marcus. He had walked up beside me.
“By any chance is this random act of violence over the fact that my sister is here with Jason Stone?”
No use in denying it. “I wasn’t ready to see her with someone else so soon.”
Marcus leaned on the railing with his elbows. “I was kind of surprised too. I mean, one day she is telling me she loves you, and then the next thing I know, you two are broken up and she’s dating Jason. Just don’t seem right. Amanda isn’t fickle.”
Why hadn’t she told him? Was she protecting me, or was she protecting her pride? I wanted to believe it was me she was protecting. She’d been the only person to ever protect me. To want to protect me.
“She wised up. I wasn’t good enough for her. You said so yourself.”
Marcus let out a heavy sigh. “I shouldn’t have said that. You’re my best friend. I love you like a brother. I just had seen you over the years go through girls faster than you did underwear, and I didn’t want my little sister to be one of those girls. I didn’t want her hurt. You’re not a bad guy. You’re a great guy. You’re loyal to a fault. You can cheer up a whole damn room. You’ve always had my back. If you were in love with a girl, then she’d be one lucky woman.” He paused and turned his head to look at me. “But you never said you loved Amanda. I knew for you to be faithful, you had to be in love with her. Even after she claimed to love you, you never said you loved her.”
I hadn’t told anyone how I felt about her. I was tired of keeping it to myself. Amanda didn’t want to hear it now. She’d never believe me, anyway. But I could tell Marcus.
“I love her. I’ll love her until the day I die. No one else is ever going to take her place. It’s impossible. I don’t want to even try. The weeks I spent with her were the best ones of my life. Having her love me was amazing. But I screwed up. I always screw up. It’s what I’m good at.”
Marcus stood back up and put his hand on my back. “No, it’s not what you’re good at. You’re good at a lot of things, but screwing up isn’t one of them. We all make mistakes. God knows I did with Low back when I found out about her sister and my dad. But when we find that one person who completes us, we don’t give up. No matter how bad we screwed up. We make it right.”
I stood there looking out at the water as Marcus’s footsteps faded away. He had no idea what he was saying. If he knew I’d been screwing women for money while with his sister, he’d kill me. When he thought Willow had betrayed him, he’d reacted the way any man would. Amanda had done nothing but love me and trust me. What I’d done to her was so much worse.
“Do I need to be worried about my life being in danger?” Jason whispered as I led him to the room where he could wait while we rehearsed. Mom had football playing on the massive flat-screen and appetizers and drinks set out.
“No. Why?” I asked.
Jason laughed. “Either you are completely blind, or you’re just really good at ignoring things. But Preston just stormed out of this house after shooting me a death glare.”
I stopped walking and looked back at the double doors that were standing open and led out onto the beach. “Preston went outside?”
“Yeah. When we hugged. He saw it, and what could only be described as rage lit up his face before he tore out of here like a man being chased.”
Really? He had seemed so uninterested in talking to me. I was still trying to deal with the fact that I annoyed him now. My presence was something he truly despised.
“I don’t think he left because of you. He can’t stand to be near me. He probably left because he was afraid I’d try to talk to him again. This weekend is going to be oh so much fun. I have to walk down the aisle with him. Sit by him at the reception, and we both have to make toasts.”
Jason reached out, took my hand, and squeezed it. “Amanda, that guy doesn’t dislike you. I don’t know what he has said to you, but I can promise you what I just saw was not disinterest or annoyance. He was ready to take me apart for touching you. I know guys. I am one. Trust me.”
I wanted to believe him. I really did, but it was hard. I knew Preston well, and I could see the blank, empty emotion in his eyes when he looked at me. I was dead to him. I couldn’t let myself hope for anything more. It already hurt too much. I didn’t need to add to the pain. Not if I was going to find a way to move on from this and live again.
“I’d like to, but I can’t. I know him too well.” I walked over to the table. “You can get anything you like to drink here, or snacks are over there. I hope you like SEC football, because that’s all we watch around here. The other teams aren’t really important in the grand scheme of things.”
Jason laughed. “So you SEC people really are as obnoxious as I’ve heard.”
“Not obnoxious. Just being honest. The facts are the facts,” I replied, and winked at him.
“The facts, huh?”
“We can go over the last ten NCAA national championship winners if you want to clear up any confusion,” Rock drawled as he walked into the room.
“Case in point. If you want to make friends, don’t dis the SEC,” I said, nodding toward Rock.
“Got it,” Jason replied.
“Hey, Amanda,” Brent said, following Rock into the room.
“Hey, you! I didn’t know I was going to get to see you tonight,” I said, going over to hug him.
He wrapped his arms around me, then nodded toward Rock. “I’m here with Rock and Trisha. They’re gonna let us go live with them. Jimmy and I even got bunk beds and an Xbox. Preston keeps beating us at the football game he bought us, though. I’m practicing. I’m gonna take him out next time.”
I would not get all weepy over this. I was just so happy for them. Hearing the joy in his little voice was wonderful.
“I have no doubt you’ll be beating your brother in no time. I have complete faith.”
Brent nodded and looked over at the table of food curiously.
“You want something to eat? Help yourself. I need to go see who has the flower girl. We’re about to start soon.”
Brent hurried over to the table.
“Bring me one of them cookies,” Rock told Brent as I walked out of the room
Rehearsal had been difficult for reasons much different from those I’d come here dreading. Being near her was hard, but seeing her with him was harder. I’d had to keep myself in check while walking down the aisle beside Amanda. She wasn’t wearing a bra. She needed to wear a bra, dammit.
The rehearsal dinner had assigned seating, and Amanda’s was beside Jason. Mine was directly across from them, since I was the best man. I got to witness their joking around and flirting. I didn’t even pretend that it didn’t bother me. I spent my entire meal glaring at him. The next time he called her “Bama” I was going to come across the table and pummel his face in. He didn’t get to give her nicknames. She wasn’t his. Or was she?
I managed to make it through the meal without causing anyone bodily harm. The moment it was finished, I bolted for the door. I had to do this shit all over again tomorrow. I was never going to make it.