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Kiss the Bride
By Jody Wallace, Keyren Gerlach
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Jody Wallace
All rights reserved.
Herman Edward Heckley III batted the length of pink taffeta away from his face and tried not to snarl. It might be unseasonably cold outside, a shocking fifty-six degrees in Tennessee in May, but inside Jenkins Bridal, it was stifling. At least for Heck. The women involved in this shenanigan seemed as comfortable as hound dogs on a front porch.
"Forget it, Caroline," he said to the bride-to-be. "I'm not wearing a dress at your wedding."
Caroline fluttered her gunked-up eyelashes at him and grinned. "You have to admit, you'd look ravishing in light peach."
Just in case Caroline was getting another stupid idea — the first being marriage to the pencil-necked asshole, as Heck fondly thought of him — he told her, "I already rented a tux."
She frowned, like his efficiency disappointed her. "You did?"
"Soon as you told me the news." He hadn't, but he figured he'd use the tux all three Heckley brothers had worn to their high school proms. The year two of them had needed it, they'd wrestled for it, and the loser had had to wear khakis. Loser and date had broken up soon thereafter.
"They probably don't have anything in size moose, anyway." Jhi Yuan Caroline's second-best friend, hovered behind the bride, sticking lace and flowers and shit in Caro's piled-up brown hair. Caro, Heck, and Jhi, plus Caroline's wedding planner, Sally Jones-Hammond, and Caroline's roommate from college, Lisa something or other, lounged in a frilly, fluffy, white hell of a room in the two-story house on the square that had been converted into a bridal salon on one side and a real estate office on the other. The bridal shop's owner, Mrs. Helen Jenkins, was locating more dresses for the ladies to try on.
Hundreds of dresses with lace and ruffles and glitter. Two hours of squealing and gossiping and him having to tell them every dress looked great and nobody's butt looked big. They weren't even kind enough to change clothes in front of him, which would have made the afternoon bearable, as far as Heck was concerned.
Instead, he was almost regretting he'd agreed to be Caroline's maid, or man, of honor. But she was his best friend, and he figured it was the least he could do for the woman who'd supported him through so much.
"I know this wedding is sudden." Caroline swiveled in her padded chair to include everyone in the conversation. "My mom may never forgive me."
"Beatrice will get over it," Heck said without conviction. Caro's parents were no fonder of Pencil Neck than Heck was, and Caro's mom hated fluff, too. Beatrice had taken Caro's gran to the doctor today, her excuse for avoiding the choosing of the dresses. The never-ending choosing of the dresses.
Heck had tried to convince Beatrice to switch places with him, but she'd turned him down flat. Not that dragging Gran to the specialist over in Memphis was a treat. The women in Caro's family could be pains in the ass when they got their minds set on something.
Such as agreeing to marry a pencil-necked snot-rag who treated them like an afterthought.
"Mom might not get over it, but she does lighten up whenever I remind her Dan and I are paying for everything," Caro said with a laugh. The wedding was local, in an old church also near the square. Since Dan had few relatives, most guests would be local, too, people from Tallwood Heck and Caro had known all their lives.
"Dan could have afforded a ring," Heck muttered. Stinginess was only one of the reasons he disliked the guy. "You don't marry somebody without giving them a damn ring."
"I didn't give him a ring, either," Caroline pointed out, but her brow furrowed as she said it. "We all know how you feel about ancient patriarchal customs. You don't have to lecture us on what a real man would do."
He opened his mouth to have his say anyway, and Caro cut him off. "Quit interrupting me when I'm being mushy. I couldn't have pulled this together without everyone's help. The thing is, we ... " She flicked a glance at him. "We might not be together as much in the future."
No kidding. It was going to suck with Caroline in Atlanta, a several-hour drive from Tallwood and yet another reason Heck disapproved of the wedding. And the groom.
"We'll manage," Heck assured her, and himself. "You've lived outside Tallwood before and civilization didn't go to your head."
Plus, the first time she'd left, she'd come back to Tallwood. Where she belonged. She sure as hell didn't belong in a city with a self- absorbed prick. What greenways and honeybees and wetlands was she going to save in a place that had already been concreted over?
Yes indeed, the more Heck thought about Caro getting married, the more reasons he added to his list of why Dan was a piece of crap. As her friend, it was his job to help her see it — before the wedding. Wasn't it? Extracting yourself from an idiot move involving a preacher and the wrong spouse was a mess he'd only wish on a few of his worst enemies.
"I just want you all to know how much I appreciate your support," Caroline finished.
"You can have my support anytime, cupcake." Jhi whispered something in Caro's ear while looking straight at Heck. "What I want to know is what Herman's planning for the bachelorette party."
"It's a secret," he told them gruffly, when in truth he hadn't worked out the details yet. Tallwood had limited nightlife options, and it wasn't warm enough for a swimming party at Bigboy Buffort's lake house. Plus, it's not like Caro had given anyone time to adjust to the fact that she was getting married. Pencil Neck had issued his whiny ultimatum to her after three years of lackluster dating — marry him or break up with him. To everyone's shock, Caroline had agreed to the former. The sprint to the altar was because Pencil Neck had some business trip coming up and wanted the wedding out of the way before he left.
This whole thing was cockeyed if you asked Heck, but of course Caroline hadn't. Which didn't mean he hadn't told her anyway. She'd promptly told him to shut it.
He didn't mind arguing with Caro, but he preferred it when she agreed with him. He could avoid the aggravation, and she was more inclined to invite him over for dinner.
Jhi smirked at him. "You have no idea about the bachelorette party, do you?"
"I have all sorts of ideas." He glared at her while Caro covered her mouth with her hand to hide a snort.
Caro had probably asked Jhi whether she should get married, but could she ask her real best friend? The one she'd known since they'd been pissing in their diapers together? Hell, no. She was more into telling him what to do than asking his opinion.
If he didn't care about her so much, it might bug the shit out of him.
"Do your ideas involve skeet-shooting or renting out the Dairy Dip?" Jhi asked. "Because no, Herman. Just no."
Maybe he'd contacted the Dairy Dip, and maybe the place was already booked for a high school graduation party. As for skeet-shooting, Caro's aim was so bad she was dangerous, and he liked his eyeballs where they were. "Not even close."
Jhi tried again. "Road trip to Memphis?"
"Yeah, we're going to hang out at your apartment and do our nails," Heck said. "Why are you so anxious? Think I can't handle one little party?"
"Pipe down, you two," Caroline said. "You're giving me a headache."
Heck didn't know what Jhi had against him, but she was the most abrasive person he knew. Toward men. She was loyal to Caroline, though, and treated her female friends nice, so she wasn't an entirely horrible person. He tolerated her because Caro said he had to.
"You could save money on a stripper," the not entirely horrible person suggested, "if you do that part yourself."
Heck resisted the urge to flip her off. He never knew when Jhi was serious. The woman had a weird sense of humor. "You should be so lucky."
Sally guffawed. She'd been tipsy on the champagne since ten minutes after they'd arrived at the bridal salon. "Heck's gonna be our stripper? Hubba hubba. I like me a big man."
"Not gonna happen," Heck said. "My package stays wrapped in group settings, thanks."
Caroline looked at him as if she were considering how skillfully he could undress. It made him as twitchy as the rest of this, but in a different way. "Can you even dance, Heck? Shake your groove thing?"
"Of course I can." He shoved out his size-fourteen work boots, which may or may not have left dirt marks on the bridal-white carpets. "I got me a right foot and a left one, and I know how to use 'em. Don't you remember prom?"
The corners of her mouth twitched. "I remember you took your cousin."
The women laughed. Laughing at ole Heck was getting to be a regular thing. Since he'd agreed to become maid of honor, he'd endured constant ribbing from the bridal party, their families, their friends, the guys at work, and even his buddy Tag who taught at the dance studio and had worked at this very bridal salon when he'd been in school.
The one person who hadn't teased him was Pencil Neck. Lucky for him. Heck would have had to bash the guy's teeth in.
"I only took my cousin to prom because you wouldn't go with me," he reminded Caro.
"I had a boyfriend my senior year. I had to go with him." She shrugged. Her strapless white dress slid a little, showing Heck more cleavage than he was used to seeing on his friend. She usually wore loose, dirt-friendly shirts and jeans that didn't exactly hug her behind.
He tried not to gawk. "You always have a boyfriend."
She shrugged again. The dress inched down farther. "I didn't have a boyfriend when I was twenty-five. The year I moved back to Tallwood."
"Uh." He blinked. Gave up and stared. She had ... okay, yeah, Caro had some nice tits. They were big, too. How had he never noticed? A thin gold necklace disappeared between them, the lucky pendant squeezed between the mounds. The top of the strapless dress was tight, while the bottom exploded in bunches of stiff lace. Her skin was tan and — and she had freckles all over her. Including her arms and face and the part of her tits he could see.
No tan lines. Did she sunbathe topless?
Did she have freckles on her thighs?
Did she have freckles on her ass?
Fingers snapped in his face, startling him out of his daydream. "Up here, big guy." Jhi was laughing. "Yes, Caroline has boobies. You don't have to look so shocked."
Caro slapped her hands to her neckline. As if her tiny, lady fingers could hide that rack. Between the freckles, he could see her blush. "Heck wasn't staring at my chest."
"He totally was," Sally said from the divan. She kicked one foot, and her shoe flopped off. "Like a hungry dog drooling over a steak."
Lisa giggled but didn't say anything.
"We're long past that. He doesn't consider me a girl," Caroline argued, her blush deepening. A curl from the jumble on her head plopped into her face. When she flicked it aside with her hand, her boobs bounced, inviting Heck to stare at her chest again.
This time he could see the hint of an undergarment peeping past the satin dress, a bra or one of those sexy corset things.
With skin like that and tits like those, in a corset Caro would be —
"Do you, Herman?"
He shook himself. "What?"
"Do you consider Caroline to be female?" Jhi repeated like she was talking to a person who didn't speak English.
Heck opened his mouth to say something courteous, but that wasn't what came out. "Damn straight I know she's female. She gets in these moods once a month and —"
Caroline lifted her foofy skirt and lashed out with a pointy shoe. It struck Heck's shin.
"Ouch!" He leaned back in the stupid girlie chair, which creaked alarmingly, and raised his eyebrows. "What the hell was that for?"
Her cheeks were still pink, but she didn't seem pissed. "You don't have to pretend, Heck. I have big boobs. All the straight guys stare at them."
Heck frowned. "Who's been staring at your chest? If I catch some jackhole doing that, I'll beat his ass like I did Stevie Guyer's." That had been Caroline's high school boyfriend and prom date. When she'd confided in Heck that Steve had pressured her to do ... stuff, Heck had taught Steve what a bad idea it was to disrespect any friend of Herman Edward Heckley III.
"Do you mean who's been staring at her chest besides you?" Jhi asked with a lifted eyebrow. "Good Lord, Herman. You're blind as well as dumb."
"Probably Dan," Sally contributed. "He's the one marrying her."
"I'm not dumb." He didn't need a piece of sheepskin to run Heckley Construction. So what if he hadn't gone to college like Caroline, Jhi, or his brothers? He could accomplish everything he needed without a degree, and wherever he fell short, he knew people who could assist. It annoyed the fire out of him when people called him dumb.
"Then maybe you aren't straight, either," Jhi said. "It would explain a lot."
Like a gay dude would be imagining the other places Caroline might have freckles. Freckles like sugar on a doughnut that needed to be licked off. "I'm not even gonna answer that."
"So are you gay?" Jhi asked, her thin eyebrows arched. "Because I know this great guy named Chase —"
"Shut up, Jhi." He was 95 percent sure this was one of those times Jhi was trying to rile him. He was glad she only visited Tallwood on the occasional weekend. With Caro in Atlanta, he'd see less of Jhi, but it was too small of a blessing to count.
"I've warned you once, and I'm not going to warn you again. Cut it out," Caro ordered. "This is supposed to be a fun day. We're all girls ... I mean, we're all friends here." She palmed her chest and gave herself a jiggle. "Everyone should admire my boobs. I'm the bride."
Heck found himself mesmerized again, what with the bouncing and the groping. The necklace's pendant worked out from between her breasts. It was tiny, gold, and familiar-looking. The acorn charm he'd given her when she'd started her environmental consulting business, Oak Consulting.
When he raised his eyes to her face, she was watching him with a peculiar expression.
He felt himself turn red this time and vowed he'd never stare at her tits again, when she might notice. "Okay, fine. I looked at your boobs. In that dress they're all ..." He waved his hands in two circles. "They're pushed up in my face. I can't not look."
"I guess this is the right dress," she concluded, "if it can make you notice I'm a girl."
Heck was saved from answering by the arrival of the salon owner. "I'm back, ladies. And Heck," Mrs. Helen said in a happy voice. She leaned on her walker and smiled. She was eighty if she was a day, but her bridal shop was the only one in Tallwood, and nobody would let her retire. "You're going to love the next set of attendant dresses I had Zoey lay out. I'm going with vibrant colors this time, since our bride wants red roses and baby's breath in the bouquet."
Jhi gave a lazy stretch, while Lisa and Sally clapped their hands and headed for the dressing rooms, already chattering about taffeta and tulle.
Heck hid a groan. Oh, boy. More skirt lengths to debate and colors that looked exactly the same to compare. It was enough to drive a man to drink, but Sally had emptied the bottle of champagne already. Some wedding planner she was.
"Is our bride still happy with the Berl Beauxbatton?" Mrs. Helen asked Caro.
"I am," she stated firmly, glaring at him when he gave her the big eye. "This dress is really growing on me."
"It's fabulous," Jhi added.
"Keep it on so we can see how it looks with the attendant gowns," Mrs. Helen encouraged. "Can I get you anything, Heck? Cake? Mints? A selection of cummerbunds? My grandson Taggart — I believe you two are friends — told me to make sure you didn't wear your tuxedo from high school."
Tag had been his friend almost as long as Caro, which is why Heck said, "Tell Taggart to stuff ... I mean, tell him I already got a tux." From high school. "Thanks, though."
"Then I'll leave you to it." With that, Mrs. Helen, her pastel dress fluttering and her walker thumping, toddled out of the room.
Jhi followed, pausing at the doorway. "What does Taggart mean about your high school tux?"
"Uh-huh." Jhi had been several years behind them in school but knew Tag socially. They didn't get on. "Are you coming, Caroline?"
She shook her head, gaze downcast. "I'm going to sit this one out."
Jhi glanced between Caro and Heck. Her lips pursed, and Heck tensed. She had the air of someone about to cause trouble, which was not unusual for Jhi. "It may take us a while to change clothes. I hope you don't get bored waiting."
Caro gave an awkward laugh. "Don't worry about us."
"I'm not worried." Jhi sashayed to the door, adding over her shoulder, "But I'm not the one getting married Saturday."
Once they were alone, Caroline slumped forward and rested her elbows on her knees like she was too tired to sit upright. In that position, her breasts fell forward in a way ... in a way he shouldn't be noticing on his best friend. Who was about to marry a pencil-necked asshole.
"Heck," she said, "can I ask you something personal?"
Excerpted from Kiss the Bride by Jody Wallace, Keyren Gerlach. Copyright © 2013 Jody Wallace. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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