Her Best Man by Jana Richards

Her Best Man by Jana Richards

Her Best Man

Left at the Altar, Book 1

by Jana Richards

Uncial Press

Ebook ISBN: 978-1-60174-019-9

[ Comedic Romance, MF ]

After being dumped at the altar, Sarah Stevens goes on the Caribbean cruise meant to be her honeymoon. When she discovers her ex-fiancé has sent his brother, Will Marshall, the former best man, on the cruise as well, Sarah discovers the best man for her really is the best man.

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Chapter One

“Do you Brad, take this woman Sarah, to be your lawful wedded wife?”

Will Marshall waited expectantly for his brother’s “I do” along with the bride and the guests assembled in the church. A few seconds passed, and then a few more, and still Brad remained silent.

A murmur reverberated through the church. The minister cleared his throat.

Will couldn’t see Brad’s face, but he caught the tremor that shook his brother’s shoulders. He glanced at the bride and their gazes locked for a second. He’d only met Sarah Stevens the previous evening at the rehearsal and didn’t know her, but he easily read the anxiety in her eyes. She stood completely still, her body rigid as if bracing for a crash. The only movement Will detected was a slight quiver of petals and ribbons as her bouquet of red roses trembled in her hands. Will shifted his attention away from Sarah and stepped beside Brad. He touched his brother’s shoulder.

“Are you all right?” he whispered.

Brad roused himself from his trance. “Yes, yes, I’m fine.” He turned to the minister. “Can you repeat the question?”

The minister nodded slightly, his smile attempting to reassure the congregation that he’d dealt with nervous grooms before. “Okay, let’s take it from the top. Do you Brad, take this woman Sarah, to be your lawful wedded wife?”

Will watched his brother’s mouth open, the words ready to tumble out. But nothing came. Brad appeared shocked by his inability to speak. Will was pretty surprised too. Calm and steady Brad was the last guy he expected to fall apart at his own wedding.

Suddenly Brad’s face turned an alarming shade of red. “I can’t do this.” He stepped away from Sarah. “I’m sorry, but I can’t marry you.”

For a second no one moved or made a sound or even breathed. Then everyone began talking at once. Isabelle Stevens jumped to her feet. Sarah’s mother had appeared high-strung when Will met her last night, but now her strings had completely snapped. “What do you mean you can’t marry Sarah? We’ve got dinner waiting for a hundred guests at the hotel. Sarah’s cousins flew in all the way from Vancouver. I had an ice sculpture of two lovebirds made for the head table. Do you know how much an ice sculpture costs? You have to get married!”

Brad backed away from the wild-eyed woman. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Stevens.”

“Sorry? You’re sorry?” She advanced on Brad. “I’ll give you sorry.”

Before anyone could react, Isabelle Stevens slipped off her high-heeled shoe and began whacking Brad with it. “How dare you humiliate us this way? How am I going to explain this to anyone?”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Stevens. I didn’t mean to hurt you or Sarah. Ow,” Brad cried, as the pointy heel of her shoe hit him in the chest.

“Mother, please,” Sarah said, her face and voice full of mortification.

Isabelle hobbled on one shoe as she followed Brad around the front of the church. Sarah’s father got to his feet and grabbed her by the shoulders. “For heaven’s sake, Isabelle. You’re making a spectacle of yourself.”

All the angry energy rushed out of her like the air from a punctured balloon, and she began to wail. “Oh, how could this happen? How could he do such a thing to us? What’ll I tell my bridge club?”

While Isabelle’s hysterics captured everyone’s attention, Brad took the opportunity to make a run for a side door, turning back one last time to look at Sarah before making his getaway. Will stood immobile, stunned by this turn of events. To say this behavior was out of character for Brad was putting it mildly. He’d never heard his brother utter so much as an unkind word to anyone.

The bridesmaid put her arm around Sarah for support. Sarah stared at Will, shock and humiliation replacing the fear he’d seen in her eyes moments ago. She looked desperately fragile and completely helpless, as if on the edge of breaking. Her wedding gown added to the picture of fragility; the fine, white fabric seemed to shimmer and float around her, giving her an ethereal quality.

For a second Will felt an overpowering urge to hold her in his arms and comfort her. He even found himself moving towards her before he abruptly stopped. What the hell was he doing? He was no white knight bent on rescuing damsels in distress. His first loyalty belonged to his brother.

Sarah lifted her chin with dignity, her voice so soft Will could barely hear her. “You’re the best man. You need to look after the groom.”

As their gazes locked once more, Will rethought his earlier assessment of the bride. She might look fragile, but he suspected Sarah Stevens possessed a core of pure steel.

With a curt nod at Sarah, Will sprinted out the side door. He ran to the sidewalk, looking down the street both ways. His brother was running down the snowbank-lined Ottawa street and Will started after him. He fought for balance on the icy walk, cursing his slippery, rented shoes. Luckily, Brad’s shoes were just as slippery. He lost his balance and fell flat on his back. When Will finally caught up to him, Brad was still lying on the street.

“With any luck,” he said, looking up at the sky, “a snowplow will come along and bury me.”

Will extended a hand to pull him up. “Let’s get out of here before you turn into an ice sculpture.”

As he helped Brad to his feet, he couldn’t help thinking of the irony of the situation. For the first time in their lives, Will was helping Brad out of a sticky situation instead of the other way around. He was the one who usually screwed up.

At least he’d never dumped a woman at the altar.

* * * *

Sarah led her mother’s cousin Mabel to her front door. “Thank you for coming. I appreciate your support.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of leaving you alone at a time like this.” Mabel’s beady eyes shone with pure delight. She did her best to conceal her glee, but it was clear she reveled in Sarah’s, and especially her mother’s, misfortune. Sarah was sure the old woman hadn’t had this much fun since the last stock market crash.

“I think Mother needs some rest now,” she said. Actually Sarah was the one who needed a rest. The afternoon had dragged interminably with a steady stream of guests. She pasted a smile on her face as she gently steered Mabel towards the door.

“I’ll drop by tomorrow with my special chicken soup,” Mabel said as Sarah helped her put on her coat.

“No!” Sarah’s stomach knotted at the idea of going through this endless trail of visitors again tomorrow. She couldn’t stand their pity and their insatiable desire to know all the details of the most humiliating experience of her life. Unfortunately, her mother thrived on the tea and sympathy routine. She’d invited her friends and family to come to the apartment to retrieve their wedding gifts and commiserate with her. All Sarah wanted to do was run and hide.

Mabel fixed her with a glare. “Is there something wrong with my special chicken soup?”

Sarah’s smile felt like it was breaking her face. “No, of course not,” she said. “I just wouldn’t want you to go to all that trouble.”

Mabel’s small, dark eyes gleamed with malicious pleasure. “Oh, no trouble at all, dear. I’d be happy to help.”

Sarah’s heart sank. What she longed to do was to tell the old lady where she could stick her chicken soup. But she was far too polite and, if she were truthful with herself, far too fearful of confrontation to say and do what she really felt. How could she go through this again tomorrow without going stark raving mad?

“Goodnight, Mabel.”

“Goodnight, my dear. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Sarah was sure she heard the old woman cackle as she closed the door.

“Old witch,” she muttered.

“Do you mean dear cousin Mabel?” Sarah’s best friend and almost bridesmaid Daniela DiPietro stepped into the front hallway with a cup of tea. “That dear, sweet old lady? I’m sure she wouldn’t kill a fly. Maybe torture it bit, but never kill it. Where’s the fun in that?”

Sarah laughed in spite of herself. She gave her friend a hug. “Oh Dani, what would I do without you?”

“I shudder to think.” Dani took Sarah’s arm and led her into the kitchen. “Come sit down and have a cup of tea with me. You look dead on your feet.”

Dani was right. Weariness threatened to overwhelm her, but she still had her mother to deal with. “I should check on Mom, make sure she’s okay.”

Her friend laid a restraining hand on her shoulder. “Sit. Your mother is just fine. She’s holding court in the living room with her bridge buddies, giving them all the gory details. Trust me, she’s enjoying herself immensely.”

Sarah dropped into the nearest chair. “It was bad enough being dumped in public by my fiancé, but having my mother go postal on him in the church is beyond humiliation.” She shook her head. “How did she manage to turn this around so that she’s the injured party? You’d think Brad broke up with her.”

Dani sipped her tea and said nothing, but her eyes spoke volumes. Sarah and her friend had debated the subject of her mother ever since Isabelle had moved herself into Sarah’s apartment following her parents’ breakup three months previously. Dani was of the opinion that Sarah should kick her mother out and let her learn how to look after herself. It wasn’t that Isabelle couldn’t afford to get her own place; she’d received a sizable inheritance when her own mother had died. But Isabelle had never once lived on her own. She constantly told Sarah how lonely she’d be, rattling around an apartment by herself.

“Okay, I know she’s something of a drama queen, but she’s still my mother. You can’t expect me to just kick her out in the snow.”

Dani flashed her a look of injured innocence. “I didn’t say a word.”

“You didn’t have to. Those eyes of yours are saying plenty.”

Isabelle chose that moment to poke her nose through the kitchen door. “Could you girls put on another pot of tea? And maybe set some of those cookies that Mabel brought on a nice china plate, not that tacky everyday stuff you have.” She sighed dramatically. “I’d do it myself but I’m just so exhausted.” She turned on her heel and left, having issued her royal command.

The two young women stared at one another, until Dani finally said, “I’ll do it. Why don’t you go to your room and try to get some rest? We’ll likely have a long day tomorrow, returning gifts and dealing with guests.”

Sarah’s stomach began to protest, and panic clawed at her brain. “I can’t do this again tomorrow, Dani. I need to get away somewhere where nobody knows me and I can think and try to figure out what to do.”

“I know,” Dani said, sympathy shimmering in her dark brown eyes. “You must be feeling heartbroken over Brad.”

“Please don’t mention that man’s name,” Sarah said. “Right now I’m so angry at him I could spit.” She concentrated on the anger so she didn’t have to think about her deep embarrassment and humiliation. What a cliché she was, the poor, pathetic bride jilted at the altar.

Speculation and gossip had probably already spread among her relatives and co-workers with the speed of an infectious disease. Even her young students in her kindergarten class would wonder why their teacher was still Miss Stevens instead of Mrs. Marshall.

She could just hear the whispers. Brad was in love with another woman. Brad was in love with another man. Brad had finally realized how frightfully boring she was. Brad had slept with Sarah and discovered how miserably inept and inexperienced she was.

Ha, she thought, the laugh is on them.

She and Brad had never slept together. She’d wanted to wait until they were married and Brad had respected her wishes. Sarah felt a twinge of remorse. To be honest, having sex with Brad hadn’t been a high priority for her. Maybe if she’d just done it, they’d be together right now. The fact that she was spending what was supposed to be her wedding night making tea for her mother and her friends wasn’t lost on Sarah.

“I don’t blame you for being angry,” Dani said. “I’d be angry too if a man did that to me, especially someone I loved with all my heart the way you loved Brad.”

“If someone dumped you at the altar, your six big brothers would make your groom look like a gory Italian pastry.”

Dani’s eyes lit up. “Now there’s an idea. What do you say? I make a few calls, and Brad gets his ass kicked.”

“You’re not serious,” Sarah said.

“They’d only hurt him a little, I promise. Just enough for him to appreciate the error of his ways. A few bruises, but no broken bones.”

“Dani!” Sarah didn’t know whether to laugh or to be appalled. She also didn’t know how seriously to take her friend. Dani was as peace-loving as the next woman, but every once in a while her hot-tempered Mediterranean heritage bubbled to the surface.

“Thanks for the offer, hon, but I think I’ll pass.” She had a sudden picture of herself in her wedding gown and high heels, kicking Brad’s butt all the way down the aisle of the church. The visual pleased her immensely.

“Suit yourself,” Dani said with a shrug. “But I still think it’s a crummy way for a person who says they love you to behave.”

Sarah swallowed hard. This talk about love made her wonder why she was more upset at the way Brad broke up with her then the idea of losing Brad himself. She hadn’t even cried yet. Was it a delayed reaction or was there something wrong with her? She’d just lost the love of her life. Hadn’t she?

Glumly, she wondered what happened to her now. Would she end up a pathetic spinster with a house full of cats, serving tea and cookies to her mother and her friends for the rest of her life? Was there some flaw in her personality that made her unlovable? She pushed the tea away, suddenly nauseated by the smell.

“What about the cruise?” Dani asked.

“The cruise?” Sometimes her friend’s mind worked so quickly she had to scramble to keep up.

“You know, the honeymoon cruise in the Caribbean, the one Brad booked for the two of you. You showed me the ticket.”

Dani’s face lit with excitement. “Your passport is ready and your bags are all packed. You could go yourself. Brad wouldn’t dare use his ticket after what he did to you.”

She shook her head. “No, I couldn’t do that.” The thought of being captive on a boat for seven days had seemed claustrophobic to her but she’d gone along with it because Brad had seemed so excited about the idea, and had promised to take her to see some Mayan ruins.

“Well, okay then. Maybe we can find you a hotel room downtown somewhere for a couple of days. You could stay at one of those places with a spa and let them pamper you. You need some serious relaxation therapy.” Dani poured hot water into a teapot and swirled it around to warm the pot before making the tea. “We might have a hard time getting a room. The hotels get pretty booked over the Christmas holidays.”

It had seemed so romantic to get married the day after Christmas. Sarah had talked Brad into the Christmas wedding because it had felt vitally important back in September to have the ceremony as soon as possible. If he had misgivings about the hasty wedding he never mentioned it to her. The plan had been for Sarah to move in with Brad after the wedding, while her mother stayed in her old apartment, at least till she found something she liked better. Sarah had been counting the days until her move. Once or twice she’d had the disquieting thought that she was marrying Brad more because she wanted to flee her mother than because she loved him.

Her mother entered the kitchen carrying the cordless phone, a pleased expression on her face. “Good news, Sarah. Mabel’s daughter Constance is coming to stay with us next week. Mabel didn’t want us to be alone. Isn’t it wonderful to have family who cares so much?”

In that instant Sarah saw her future flash in front of her eyes. For the next week she’d be expected to wait hand and foot on both her mother and Constance, who was only slightly less predatory than her mother. They would moan constantly about how Sarah had been dumped at the altar while a steady stream of her mother’s friends and relations dropped by to witness the car wreck her life had become. She wouldn’t even be allowed to escape to work because school was closed for the holidays. In that moment of crystal clear insight she knew exactly what she had to do.

“Well, I hope the two of you have fun,” she said, “because I’m not going to be here. I’m going cruising.”

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