Happily Ever After. That was The End, right? The hard part was over. It was smooth sailing now. I lay in bed next to my handsome, celestial Prince Charming, the tropical breeze blowing through the window screens of our little Caribbean hut, waiting for the sun to rise so I could begin my wedding day.
Funny how Happily Ever After isn’t the end after all…at least, not when Hell is trying to kill you.
That trivial little fact was easy to ignore with the light rain tapping the tin roof, and the palm fronds brushing against our casita as the wind gently pushed its way through the trees. The first glimmers of sunlight danced along the ceiling as translucent dashes of warmth. Those shuddering, glowing dots above me were the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes. Jared Ryel was the second. He smiled, waiting for my eyes to focus.
“It’s tomorrow,” he whispered.
Splatters of pinks and purples had just breached the windows, and the rain had all but left us for the bigger island, reduced to droplets. The fading purple splotches on Jared’s forehead, cheek and chin stood out in the early light, and they brought back a flood of memories from the days before.
He and I had already survived the impossible—coming face to face with one of the most frightening beings in Hell and a few hundred of his minions, human and demon alike. Simply celebrating another day would have sufficed. That was the moment realization hit, and Jared’s eyes brightened with amusement as my sleepy expression perked.
“It’s today?” I said softly. I reached up to touch his skin, and the residual marks from his skirmish with Shax.
Jared pushed himself onto his elbows, and then leaned his head closer to my stomach. “Good morning, little Bean.”
“Bean?” I said, one eyebrow shooting up.
“Yes, she’s no bigger than a bean. That’s what the book says, anyway.”
Jared reached to the floor, pulling up a thick book, its cover dripping in hideous pastel colors and childish writing.
“I thought I should be prepared for anything that might come up.” Jared flipped through the pages, and then peered up at me, waiting for approval.
“Is there a chapter on balance-disrupting angel babies?” I said, grinning when Jared’s eyebrows pushed together.
He tossed the book to the floor and then playfully situated himself over me, nuzzling my neck.
“Jared!” I squealed, making a poor attempt to push him away. “Stop!”
“I’ll stop if you say it,” he said, his voice muffled against my skin.
“Say what?” I laughed, wiggling in vain.
Jared lifted his head to look me in the eyes. “Bean,” he said, his eyes a soft blue-gray.
I pressed my lips together, forming a hard line, but when he tickled me again, I caved. “Okay!” I pleaded. “Bean!”
A wide grin spread across his face. “I wish I’d known how well this tactic of persuasion works on you three years ago. Life would have been somewhat easier.”
I swatted at him, knowing he would duck. “Not fair.”
Jared kissed my lips, his warmth soaking into my skin. It didn’t seem as warm as usual, but I attributed it to the tropical heat raising my own temperature.
“You know what’s not fair? I don’t get to see you until this afternoon.” He left me alone on the bed, pulling a white T-shirt over his head.
“What do you mean?” I said, pushing up on my elbows.
“You’d better get dressed, sweetheart. We’re expecting company in five minutes.”
Jared tossed a tan summer dress to the bed, and I scrambled to put it on, knowing better than anyone that Jared wasn’t mistaken about things like time. I pulled my hair into a messy ponytail, and then stood awkwardly while Jared opened the tin door. A line of villagers made their way to our casita, led by a frazzled-looking Beth. She held a white garment bag, and when her eyes met mine, her smile widened to its limit.
“Beth!” I said, rushing down the steps. Mud squished between my bare toes as I ran to her, enveloping her in my arms. Her auburn hair was damp, plastered to her forehead and cheeks. She was sweaty and red-faced, trying to catch her breath as Chad pulled the garment bag from her fingers.
“She wouldn’t let anyone else carry it,” he said, shaking his head. He held the bag out for Jared, but Beth quickly grabbed it back, smacking his hand away.
“Jared can’t see it!” she said. She held the long bag up, away from the mud, but behind her to protect it from Jared’s hands.
Jared was amused. “I won’t look, Beth. I’m going to take Chad to the chapel now. You two have the whole day.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised—Jared could arrange anything—but I was speechless. Beth and Chad had arrived just eight hours after us.
“How did you…?” I began.
Jared’s smile widened. “We’ve taken care of everything. I didn’t want you stressed.”
“We…?” I frowned, more confused.
“Mom is waiting for me at the chapel. See you there.” He grinned from ear to ear. I’d never seen him so happy. He leaned down to kiss my cheek, and then gestured for Chad to follow.
“You’ve maneuvered a motorcycle before?”
Chad paused. “Yeah. Why?”
“It’s a bit of a drive.” Jared patted Chad on the shoulder, encouraging him along. Poor Chad seemed totally out of his element. Even though the men weren’t that close, I had full confidence in my husband-to-be to make Chad feel at ease. That responsibility would serve as double duty to soothe Jared’s nerves.
“Wait ‘til you see this dress!” Beth squealed, pulling me inside. She hooked the bag onto a wooden lip above the closet, and then rubbed her sore shoulder. “It was a long, muddy walk.”
“It is,” I nodded. “Would you like me to get some ice for your shoulder?”
Beth’s eyes lit up again. She pulled down the zipper of the garment bag, turning to me.
I blinked in disbelief. “That’s the…um…”
Beth’s eyes were wild with excitement. “The dress from the magazine that you picked out two years ago? Yes!”
“But...how is it here? How did he…?”
Beth couldn’t wait for me to spit out the words. “I have been hanging on to this thing forever! Can you believe it? Lillian brought it to the apartment. She said you had picked it out, and Jared bought it, and they made me bottle this up for two years! It was awful! Why do you think I hounded you about a wedding date all those times?”
Beth nodded. “I know, right? That’s what I said. His mom said he was excited; he wanted to surprise you, blah, blah, blah. I personally think he just wanted to torture me because it’s been hell.”
I couldn’t stop staring at the flowing, silky whiteness in front of me. I remembered sitting on our couch in the loft while I healed, thumbing through magazines with Lillian and pausing on a picture, unable to turn the page. It was just days after I was discharged from the hospital, the day Claire left to eliminate all the humans that threatened us. A dress identical to the one I showed a partisan interest in almost two years earlier dangled from a hanger just feet from me.
“Beth?” I said, still staring at the dress.
“You’re going to have to take it down a few notches. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.”
Beth’s head bobbed quickly, and then she took a seat in the corner. After a deep breath, she began again, “It’s beautiful.”
I almost asked Beth if she knew why Lillian didn’t keep the dress at her house, but it was a foolish question. Beth was safe. No one would blow up her apartment, or bust through her windows in the middle of the night—and it would give Jared an extra ally in vying for a wedding date.
“He’s brilliant,” I said, in awe.
Beth gripped her knees and bit her lip, struggling with every passing second. “Are you still overwhelmed?”
“I’m feeling better.”
She leaned forward in her seat, quickly losing the fight to remain composed. “I brought two bags overflowing with makeup, hairspray and curling irons. I think I have every size known to man. I can make big barrel curls, or little spiral curls. If you don’t want curls I brought a flat iron….”
“You take a Valium. I’ll take a shower...wait. Is it ridiculous that I don’t know what time my wedding starts?”
“One o’clock. We have plenty of time.”
I nodded, grabbing my robe and a towel. I couldn’t imagine how difficult the wait must have been for her. It was endearing and disturbing at the same time.
Under the warm stream of the casita’s humble shower, it wasn’t difficult to let go of any anxiety. Birds sang to each other from the branches of the palm trees, and the sounds of the ocean gave away its close proximity. Feeling stressed in paradise was wonderfully impossible.
“Did you want an up-do? I brought bobby pins just in case!” Beth called.
“Not listening!” I said, massaging shampoo into my hair. I wondered if she was curious about Jared’s fading bruises, or if she’d even noticed. Surely Chad would. If they spent the morning together, eventually he would see them. Jared would explain them away, but if Beth asked me about them and I told a different story, it would complicate things. It was easy to convince her that I needed a bodyguard—she’d witnessed my run-in with Mr. Dawson, after all. Unless it was due to training, Jared’s bruises were a telltale sign that I had been in danger. Two years of experience told me that Beth was too preoccupied with wedding details, so I put that worry to the back of the line.
Thinking of Jared’s bruises made the rest of his face form in my mind, and suddenly I couldn’t get out of the shower fast enough. It made me feel anxious to wait so long before I was allowed to see him again.
I rushed into the casita in my towel, my hair dripping wet, and slipped on the sleeves of my robe.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m just going for a walk,” I said, slipping on a pair of sandals.
“Oh, no, you’re not. We have a day’s worth of primping to do in just a few hours! Get your backside in this chair, young lady!” Beth said.
“I’ll just be a minute,” I said, waving her away. I swung open the door of the casita to find Bex standing in my way.
“Morning,” he smiled. “Going somewhere?”
“Just for a walk,” I shrugged.
“Don’t you have some girly things to do? You’re getting married in a few hours.”
I frowned. “Are you here to keep me captive?”
Bex mirrored my expression. “No, paranoid schizo. Your guardian-slash-almost husband is across the island, and you and your unborn baby are two of Hell’s Most Wanted. I’m here to keep you safe. If you wanna leave, leave. I have to walk with you, though.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling silly. “Okay, then. I want to leave.”
Beth grabbed my wrist, a hair dryer in her other hand. “I jumped on a plane at a moment’s notice. I rode a boat across an unknown body of water—in the pouring rain. There is mud caked under my newly painted toenails, and I’m pretty sure a bird crapped in my hair on the walk here. I’ve endured all this to come here and help you get ready for a wedding that I’ve kept a secret for two years. You can give me a few hours!”
“Okay! You’re right, I’m sorry,” I said. I followed Beth back into the casita, sitting in the chair she’d placed in front of a makeshift salon counter.
“Whoa,” Bex said, sitting on the bed. “Girls are crazy.”
The counter was covered in wires that led to various hot irons, makeup, brushes, curlers, combs and hair products. The black wires were hooked into an orange extension cord that led outside to the solar-powered generator Jared had rigged outside. The mess of wires were an eyesore, but at least we had power without the annoying drone of a gas-powered generator. Beth brought several lamps to make up for the limited natural light filtering through the windows, and a manicure and pedicure kit. A large camera also sat among the clutter, beside two packages of fresh memory cards for her camera.
“Thank you, Beth,” I said. The planning alone had to have been time-consuming.
“That’s what best friends do.”
After hours of combing, scrubbing, powdering and polishing, I was finally ready to slip on my wedding dress.
“I’ll step outside,” Bex said. “I need some fresh air, anyway.”
“Good idea,” I smiled. “No telling what that much hairspray will do to a young man’s lungs.”
Beth waited for Bex to leave, and then sighed. “We have to wait to put on your dress,” she said, fidgeting.
“You’re joking,” I said. I took a step toward my dress, but Beth ran around me, holding her arms up and out, shielding the dress from my hands.
“I’m not! I’m not joking. We’re waiting.”
I frowned. “You’re losing it, Beth,” I said, sitting in the chair in a huff.
“You look beautiful,” she smiled.
“I’m used to being in the dark for the most part, but on my wedding day, I would like to be in the know.”
“I understand,” Beth said, thick with regret. “It’s just that….”
A small knock at the door immediately changed Beth’s demeanor. “Coming!” she said, relieved.
Cynthia stood in the doorway. As usual, her face was devoid of emotion. “Well?” she called behind her. “Put my things in the adjacent building. Thank you.” Her tone was opposite her words—also her usual.
“Mother,” I said, surprised.
She wore a champagne-colored sheath dress. Even after marching through a tropical rain shower and the mud in six-inch heels, her dress and matching shoes were immaculate. Her hair was pulled back into its usual tight French bun, making her eyes even more severe when she pulled of her sunglasses and huffed.
“I apologize for my lateness, Nina dear. I had several functions to reschedule, since my presence was demanded at such late notice.”
“Sorry,” Beth and I said at the same time.
“Well,” she sighed. “You are my only daughter. We do what we must.” I smiled, and Cynthia took the few steps to offer a cold embrace. The awkward gesture was the most she could offer; knowing that made me appreciate it more than others might have. She quickly let go, and offered a polite smile. “You look wonderful, dear.”
“Thank you. I was just about to step into my dress….”
“Oh. Well, then, I’ll just step out,” Cynthia said.
I fidgeted. “Would you mind helping?”
Cynthia hesitated. “Er … isn’t that why Beth is here?”
“No,” Beth smiled. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Cynthia’s eyes scanned my dress and its yards of white silk, and clouded with tears. “Oh, my,” she whispered, pulling a tissue from her purse.
I was taken aback. Cynthia rarely cried. In fact, she’d only found two occasions in my lifetime for it, and both had more to do with my father.
“It’s okay, Mother,” I said, hesitating to find an appropriate place to comfort her. I settled on her shoulder, patting awkwardly a few times.
She sniffed once, lifting her chin to ward off the uninvited emotion. “It’s just that Silk Charmeuse wrinkles so easily.”
I nodded. “I know.”
After one last dab at her eyes with the tissue, she turned. “Beth best assist you, darling. Call for me when you’re dressed.” She closed the door behind her, and I turned to Beth.
“I’m so sorry,” Beth whispered. “I thought…I waited for her because I thought she’d like to be involved. I should have known better. Now you both just feel awkward.”
“It was worth a try. One never knows with Cynthia. She might have been insulted if I hadn’t asked, so you did the right thing.”
I smiled. “You did. Now help me get this thing on, and let’s not let it wrinkle. I don’t want to upset my mother.”
Beth nodded, and carefully pulled the dress from its hanger. “Neither do I.”