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Brandt Wainwright gritted his teeth. It was as if he had ten thumbs instead of two. He had tried three times before, but he was unable to secure the striped, silk tie into a Windsor knot.
He'd given up wearing ties, or as he called them, corporate nooses, the day after he was drafted by the NFL. That was more than ten years ago. Now, as his cousin's best man in a wedding that was certain to make the Vows section of the Sunday New York Times, he'd agreed to wear a tuxedo.
He wasn't completely surprised when his cousin had asked him to be his best man, but what had shocked him was Jordan Wainwright's announcement that he'd planned to marry Aziza Fleming. Brandt had introduced the two of them at the New Year's Eve party he'd hosted earlier that year. Seven months later, and in less than half an hour, they would become husband and wife.
Brandt ran a hand over the back of his neck. He felt practically naked having cut his hair, which usually covered the nape of his neck. He hadn't wanted to, since like many athletes he was superstitious about things like that. But then again, he had to when Jordan asked him to get a haircut like the other groomsmen in the weddinghis brothers, Noah and Rhett, and Jordan's law partner, Kyle Chatham.
If it had been anyone else, Brandt would've told them exactly where they could go and what they could do in the most colorful language imaginable. He was used to that kind of language in the locker room, on the gridiron and on occasion at family gatherings, much to the chagrin of his straitlaced mother. Brandt usually didn't make New Year's resolutions, but this year he'd made a promise to himself to watch his language.
Two quick taps on the door caught his attention. Turning, Brandt smiled as Jordan Wainwright leaned against the doorframe in one of the guest suites in the landmark Fifth Avenue mansion. After a raucous Vegas-style bachelor party at Brandt's penthouse, the groomsmen managed to clean up well enough to attend the rehearsal and the dinner that followed in the magnificent four-story greystone mansion where Jordan had grown up with his brothers and sister. Instead of returning to his place, Brandt had spent the night in one of the guest suites to ensure he would make it to the wedding on time.
Brandt's pearly white teeth were a stark contrast to his deeply tanned face. He smiled at Jordan, who wore a pair of dress trousers, black patent leather oxfords, a white tuxedo shirt and a platinum-hued silk tie. Jordan's looks were dark and dramatic. His raven hair, hazel eyes and olive complexion made him stand out among the Wainwrights, who were mostly blond and fair-skinned.
"I came to see if you needed help with your tie."
Brandt frowned. "You've got jokes?" The question was laced with sarcasm. "You should've had a beach wedding so we wouldn't have to wear tuxedos, ties or shoes."
"You can have a destination wedding once you decide to stop chasing skirts," Jordan replied, with a smile.
Brandt's frown deepened. "For your information, I only chase skirts during the off-season. Did you come to check on my Windsor knot-tying skills, or are you getting cold feet?"
Jordan folded his arms over his chest and shook his head. "Not even close. My mother would have a minor breakdown if I didn't go through with this wedding. Initially, she wanted to invite three to four hundred people from my side of the family, but Aziza was adamant. She told her no more than one hundred fifty. After all, it is her wedding."
"Which mother?" Brandt asked. The question was out before he had chance to think about it. "I'm sorry about that."
Jordan waved a hand. "Don't apologize, Brandt."
It wasn't until he'd announced his engagement to Aziza that Jordan decided to put the skeletons from his past to rest. It had taken thirty-three years for him to finally meet his birth mother.
Jordan walked into the bedroom and sat on the tufted bench at the foot of the bed.
"Christiane is leading the way, and Diane is hot on her heels," Jordan admitted.
A decades-old feud ended when Jordan brokered a real-estate deal in which the Wainwright Developers Group and RLH Realty had formed a fragile partnership, resulting in the companies agreeing to jointly own and manage four properties in Harlem. Once the deal was finalized, Wyatt Wainwright, the family patriarch, had summoned anyone with a drop of Wainwright blood to attend a family gathering. It was to stunned silence that Wyatt disclosed the circumstances surrounding his eldest grandson's birth. It had been Diane Humphries-Andrews and not Christiane Johnston-Wainwright who was Jordan's birth mother.
Brandt sat next to his cousin, stretching out long legs and crossing them at the ankle, while staring at the tips of his shoes. "I know it's not easy for you to talk about it, but how does it feel to have two mothers?"
Jordan sandwiched his hands between his knees. "I really don't give it much thought." He gave Brandt a sidelong glance. "Ironically, I feel closer to my half sisters than I do to my biological mother. I don't hold it against Diane that she gave me up at birth, because she had unwittingly been sleeping with a man who was engaged to another woman. What I'm still dealing with is my grandfather Wyatt's and Diane's fathers' underhanded wheeling and dealing. When I discovered what they'd engineered, I couldn't help but think about what would've happened if my father had ended his engagement to Christiane and married Diane."
Brandt managed a wry smile. "You'd still be a Wainwright. And what made the lie so easy to pull off is that you look like Wyatteven down to the black hair."
Jordan smiled. "Maybe, as long as I don't start acting like him."
"Are you that certain you're not like him?"
Jordan's deep-set eyes stared at his cousin. Brandt Wainwright was the NFL's golden boy. In the sports world he was known as "The Viking," with his rakish good looks and long, blond hair. A hefty two hundred fifty-five pounds were evenly distributed over Brandt's muscular six-foot-five frame. Although Jordan was just a few days older than Brandt, there were times when he'd felt a few years older. Jordan attributed the difference in maturity to the fact that Brandt had chosen to become a professional football player, while he had decided to become a lawyer.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Jordan asked.
Brandt smiled. "Don't get your nose out of joint, cuz. After all, I don't want you to get a headacheespecially on your wedding night."
"When did you become a comedian?"
The uncomfortable silence seemed to grow with each passing second. Rarely did the two cousins argue or disagree about anything. Jordan had been an only child for ten years before his brother Noah was born, so in the meantime Brandt had been Jordan's unofficial brother.
Brandt had lost count of the number of times he'd stayed over at Jordan's family's mansion across from Central Park. Back then, he'd been too young to understand why his aunt and uncle had slept in separate bedrooms before the birth of Noah Wainwright, who was ten years Jordan's junior. But what no one had known at the time was that Christiane was not Jordan's biological mother. And it had taken Edward Wainwright's wife almost a decade to forgive her husband for his indiscretion.
"Jordan, I'm not trying to be funny," Brandt said. "I know it can't be easy for you to see family members who were once at each others' throats come here today. And I saw you go through hell when you had to decide whether to invite Diane and your half sisters to your wedding. All I can say is better you than me."
"I know you blame your grandfathers for being puppet masters who manipulated the lives of their children, but you have to put that behind you," Brandt continued. "Especially today when you're beginning a new life with the woman you love."
The room grew quiet again.
"You asked me whether you should invite Diane Andrews to your wedding and I said yes," Brandt continued. "Every family has its secrets and the Wainwrights and Humphrieses are no exception."
Jordan put his arm across Brandt's shoulder. "You missed your calling, cuz. You should've become a lawyer rather than let a bunch of three-hundred-fifty-pound linemen beat the crap out of you every Sunday."
Brandt chuckled. "I may play football, but I do know how to read and write."
"What do you plan to do when you stop playing ball?" Jordan asked.
Brandt shrugged his broad shoulders. "I don't know. I suppose I'll have to cross that bridge when I come to it."
"Noah said there's a position for you at Wainwright Developers whenever you're ready to hang up your jersey."
"I'll think about it."
Jordan patted his cousin's back. "Don't think too long, cuz." He didn't want to remind Brandt that there was always the possibility that his career could end with him being carried out on a stretcher.
"I won't," Brandt said after a reflective pause. "I plan to play for another two years and then I'm out." Aziza, Jordan's soon-to-be wife, had renegotiated his contract for three years instead of five. He wanted to retire at thirty-five while he was still at the top of his game. He'd entrusted his legal affairs to Aziza Fleming after he'd asked his teammate Alex whether his sister would be willing to negotiate his contract extension. Aziza proved her worth when she'd stood firm on what she'd wanted for her client, and in the end he'd been rewarded by becoming the highest-paid quarterback in the league.
Jordan exhaled audibly and stood up. "I guess I'd better finish getting dressed."
"Are you nervous?" he asked.
"Is the Pope Catholic?" Jordan replied.
"Damn," Brandt drawled. "You've always been cool and calm, never let anyone see you sweat. What's up with you?"
A wry smile spread across Jordan's face. "When I woke up this morning, I finally realized the enormity of what it means to become a married man. It's no longer about what I want or need, but also what Zee wants and needs. We've talked about starting a family, and it scares the hell out of me when I try to imagine being a father. Will I be too hard on my kids, or too easy? And what if I have girls? Do I chase away every boy who looks sideways at them?"
"You have a long time before you have to worry about your daughter going out with a boy," Brandt said.
"I don't know about your father, but every time my dad saw me with a new date he'd say, 'think of her as your sister.' Do you how that can mess with your head? Once, I did go out with a girl who reminded me of my sister, and even though I'd wanted to sleep with her it never happened."
Jordan chuckled. "That's what you get for dating blondes. They're all going to remind you of your sister."
A sheepish expression spread across the quarterback's face when he smiled. "Some really weren't natural blondes."
"That's why I prefer brunettes," said Jordan. "I've never been surprised once we decide to take our relationship to the next level."
"I'll keep that in mind the next time I get involved with a woman." Brandt waved his hand dismissively. "Thanks for coming to check on me, but I think I'm good here. As soon as I'm dressed, I'll come down to see you."
Jordan checked his watch. "I'll see you downstairs in twenty minutes." Brandt nodded.
Aziza Fleming had hired wedding planner Tessa Whitfield-Sanborn of Signature Bridals and Event Planners to plan the ceremony, which was being held in the Wainwright mansion, as well as the cocktail reception in the small ballroom and dinner and dancing in the larger ballroom. Although the well-known wedding planner was on maternity leave, she'd agreed to oversee Jordan and Aziza's wedding since Jordan's law partner had been her husband's law school mentor.
Brandt reached for the gold monogrammed cufflinks, a gift from Jordan to his groomsmen, and fastened them to the French cuffs of his shirt. Then he reached for his tuxedo jacket and slipped each arm into the sleeves. He stopped to contemplate his cousin's wedding, unable to understand why once their children reached a certain age, their mothers suddenly became obsessed with marrying them off. Brandt had to assume it had something to do with wanting grandchildren.
Lately he'd had to suffer through his father's lengthy discourses about taking responsibility for his actions. What he hadn't wanted to mention to his father was that since he'd become sexually active, he'd never slept with a woman without using protection. If he wasn't ready for marriage, then he was even less prepared for fatherhood.
The clock on the mantelpiece chimed on the quarter hour. Everyone in the wedding party had been instructed to meet in the antechamber on the second floor overlooking the entrance hall at five forty-five. Leaving the suite, Brandt walked the length of the hallway to a rear staircase. The groomsmen were huddled together, waiting for their boutonnieres, which were fashioned from miniature white roses and lilac. The sound of feminine laughter floated from a nearby room.
There had been two rehearsalsthe first time for the wedding party to familiarize themselves with the logistics, and the second time to confirm that everyone knew what they were to do. Brandt and Jordan were to enter the foyer through a hallway leading from the west wing of the mansion. The groomsmen and bridesmaids were to descend the curved staircase and walk along the white carpet to a floral-covered canopy where the bride and groom would exchange their vows.
The wedding planner touched the earpiece in her left ear. Although she was a new mother, Tessa had decided to personally coordinate the Fleming-Wainwright nuptials. Her wedding planning business had grown so much that she'd had to hire two assistants. Both young women were bright and had quickly learned the business. But Tessa continued to closely monitor important clients, especially those who were part of her elite social circle.
She raised her hand to get Jordan's attention. "Jordan, it's time for you and Brandt to head out."
The bridesmaids filed out of the room and into the hallway wearing flowing silk chiffon strapless bias-cut gowns in varying shades of blue, ranging from cobalt to robin's egg to periwinkle to sapphire. Each woman wore a large cushion-cut sapphire-and-diamond pendant that had been her gift from the bride. As a gesture designed to bring the Humphrieses and the Wainwrights together, Aziza had asked Jordan's two half sistersStephanie and Keisha Andrewsto be her bridesmaids.