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The Worst Best Man

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Mia Sosa delivers a sassy, steamy #ownvoices enemies-to-lovers novel, perfect for fans of Jasmine Guillory, Helen Hoang, and Sally Thorne!

A wedding planner left at the altar? Yeah, the irony isn't lost on Carolina Santos, either. But despite that embarrassing blip from her past, Lina's offered an opportunity that could change her life. There's just one hitch... she has to collaborate with the best (make that worst) man from her own failed nuptials.

Marketing expert Max Hartley is determined to make his mark with a coveted hotel client looking to expand its brand. Then he learns he'll be working with his brother's whip-smart, stunning—absolutely...

Year:
2020
Language:
english
ISBN:
42c9ae76-53f7-4226-84c3-13397ad687ce
File:
EPUB, 383 KB
Download (epub, 383 KB)

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Dedication

It took a village to raise us; this story is for the village elders:

Mãe, Ivany, and Reni.





Contents



Cover

Title Page

Dedication

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Acknowledgments

The Wedding Crasher

About the Author

By Mia Sosa

Copyright

About the Publisher





Prologue

The Stockton Hotel

Washington, DC

Three Years Ago

Max

My phone’s text tone chirps like a robin—which fails to prepare me for the clusterfuck on the screen.

ANDREW: Everything you said last night made sense, M. Thanks to you, I can see the truth now. I can’t marry Lina. Need you to break the news. Don’t worry, she’ll handle it with class. Going to disappear for a few days while I get my head straight. Tell Mom and Dad I’ll call them soon.

I’m too young and hungover for this shit.

Using the few brain cells that survived the effects of yesterday’s bar crawl, I try to synthesize the limited information in my possession. One, my older brother, Andrew, the quintessential people pleaser and a man who does everything according to plan, is due to get married this morning. Two, he’s not in our hotel suite, which means he fled the premises after I crashed last night. And three, he never jokes about anything; the stick permanently lodged up his ass prevents him from experiencing fun. No matter how I move them, the pieces of this puzzle refuse to fit together.

Could this be a case of Andrew’s dormant (and terrib; le) sense of humor suddenly waking up? God, I sure hope so.

I fight my way out of the bedsheet twisted around my torso, sit up, and type a quick reply.

ME: This isn’t funny. Call me. Right now.

He doesn’t respond, so I ring his cell. When the call goes straight to voicemail, I accept that Andrew doesn’t want to be reached and wish him a speedy trip straight to hell.

Don’t worry? She’ll handle it with class? My brother’s a bonehead if he thinks Lina won’t flip out when she discovers he isn’t showing up today. Easily imagining the bride’s devastated reaction, I focus on the two sentences in Andrew’s text that make me especially queasy: Everything you said last night made sense, M. Thanks to you, I can see the truth now. Problem is, I can’t remember much about the prior evening—an entire bottle of Patrón tends to affect a person’s short-term memory—let alone recall what bullshit I may have said to my brother during his final hours of bachelorhood. If I had to guess, though, I probably claimed that remaining single was preferable to getting married and acted as if I’d thoroughly beaten him in the game of life.

I’m twenty-five. He’s my brother. This is what we do.

Christ. I flop back onto the mattress and contemplate my next move. Someone needs to clue in the bride. My mother’s not an option. She’s tactless. At my parents’ twentieth-anniversary celebration, she told my grandmother Nola—and a roomful of their guests—that her only hesitation in marrying my father had been a concern that he was a mama’s boy, an affliction my mother attributed to the extended period Grandma Nola had let him drink from her tit. Direct quote. My father, for his part, would throw on his investigative reporter hat and engage in an invasive truth-finding mission, all in service to discovering why my brother had bailed on his fiancée. Dad’s heavy-handed behavior will only aggravate the situation. I know this firsthand—it’s one of the reasons my parents divorced a year ago. Since my big mouth is partly responsible for triggering this unfortunate chain of events, I’m the obvious choice. But damn, I don’t want to be.

Massaging my throbbing temples, I drag myself out of bed and limp my way to the bathroom. Minutes later, as I’m brushing my teeth and ignoring my scruffy, red-eyed reflection in the mirror, the phone chirps again. Andrew. I spit out a capful of mouthwash, dart back into the bedroom, and swipe my phone off the nightstand—only to be disappointed by my father’s message.

DAD: Get your asses down here. Your brother’s going to be late for his own wedding if he’s not here in five.

Everything inside me freezes: atoms, blood flow, the whole shebang. I might even be clinically dead. Because on top of everything else, I overslept, effectively destroying my chance to divert the guests before they arrive and adding another layer to this shit cake of a day.

The blare of the hotel’s digital alarm clock yanks me out of my stupor and pummels my skull. I slam a hand down on the off button and squint at the tiny snooze icon mocking me in the corner of the display. You know what? I’m never drinking again. No, wait. That’s an empty promise if ever there was one. Special occasions. Yes, that’ll work. Going forward, I’ll only drink on special occasions. Does informing a bride that her groom won’t be showing up for the wedding qualify as one such occasion? Probably not. Do I want it to? Absofuckinlutely.

Lina

Pity. That’s what I see in Max’s whiskey-brown eyes. In his dejected stance. In the way he’s struggling to conceal a pout.

I motion him inside the dressing suite. “What’s going on?”

My tone of voice is exactly as it should be: calm and even. In truth, I regularly monitor my daily emotional output the way some people track their daily caloric intake, and since my mother and I just shared a few teary-eyed minutes together, I’m either fresh out of feelings or close to exceeding today’s quota.

After striding to the center of the room, Max turns around slowly, one of his hands fussing with the collar of his button-down. That’s the biggest sign that something’s amiss: He isn’t wearing the light gray suit Andrew selected for his attendants.

I prod him with a different question. “Is Andrew okay?”

It can’t be that bad if Max is here. I don’t know him well—he lives in New York and hasn’t been around for most of the pre-wedding festivities. Still, he’s Andrew’s only sibling, and if something awful has happened, he’d be with his older brother, right? Well, given that Max was Andrew’s third choice for best man (after choices one and two politely declined), perhaps that isn’t a safe assumption.

Max scrunches his brows, the resulting lines in his forehead reminding me of ripples in water. “No, no, Andrew’s fine. It’s nothing like that.”

I press a hand to my belly and let out a shaky breath. “All right, good. Then what’s going on?”

He swallows. Hard. “He’s not coming. To the wedding. Says he can’t go through with it.”

For several seconds, I just blink and process. Blink, blink, blink, and process. God. All the planning. The people. The family that traveled from near and far to be here. I envision the fallout and cringe. My mother and aunts will be livid on my behalf. Before this day is over, they’ll organize a search party so they can find Andrew and kick him in the balls with the agility and precision of the Rockettes. And considering their entrepreneurial spirit, I wouldn’t be surprised if they sold tickets to the show and titled it The Nutcracker.

Max clears his throat. The staccato sound disrupts my stream of consciousness, and the significance of the situation truly hits me.

I’m not getting married today.

My throat constricts and my chest tightens. Oh, no, no, no. Hold it together, Lina. You’re a pro at this. I wrestle with my tears and body slam them back into their ducts.

Max inches forward. “What can I do? Do you need a hug? A shoulder to cry on?”

“I don’t know what I need,” I say hoarsely, unable to pull off the unruffled demeanor I’d hoped to convey.

His sad eyes meet mine and he opens his arms. I step into his embrace, desperate to connect with someone so I’ll feel less . . . adrift. He holds me with a light touch, and somehow I know he’s restraining himself, as though he wants to keep me afloat rather than pull me under. Through the fog, I notice Max is damp, fresh from a shower possibly, and I’m struck by the absence of any detectible fragrance on his skin. I wonder briefly if my scent will cling to him when he leaves, then wonder just as briefly whether my brain’s short-circuiting.

“Are you okay?” he asks in a whisper-soft tone.

I don’t move as I consider his question. Maybe remaining still will help me assess the damage. By all rights, I should be hurt, angry, ready to rail against the injustice of what Andrew’s done to me. But I’m none of those things. Not yet. The truth is, I’m numb—and more than a little confused.

Andrew’s supposed to be “the one.” For two years, we’ve shared interesting conversations, satisfying sex, and stability. Most important, he’s never pushed my buttons—not even once—and I can’t imagine a better choice for a lifelong partner than someone who doesn’t trigger my worst impulses. Until this morning, Andrew and I seemed to be on the same page about the mutual benefits of this union. Today he’s apparently in a different book altogether—and I have no idea why.

Max fills the silence, babbling for us both: “I don’t know what’s going on with him. One minute he was fine. And then we talked last night. We went barhopping, you know? Somewhere between the shots of Patrón, I said some foolish things. It went sideways from there. I’m sorry. So damn sorry.”

The anguish in his voice snags my attention, gives me a hook to sink my psyche into. He’s apologizing for something rather than consoling me, which doesn’t make sense. I slip out of his arms and back away. “What do you mean you said some foolish things?”

He drops his chin and stares at the floor. “Honestly, I don’t remember all that much. I was drunk.”

I skirt around him so I’m not blinded by the sunlight streaming in from the arched bay window—the better to see this fuckery. Oh, the cloudless sky chafes, too; wasting perfect wedding-day weather should be a petty crime punishable by at least a few days’ jail time. “How’d he tell you? Did you speak to him face-to-face?”

“He sent a text,” Max says softly, the floor still the object of his undivided attention.

“Let me see it,” I demand.

His head shoots up at the command. For a few seconds, we do nothing but stare at each other. He flares his nostrils. I . . . don’t. His gaze darts to my lips, which part of their own volition—until I realize what I’m doing and snap my mouth shut.

My body temperature rises, and I’m tempted to tug at the lace on my arms and chest. I feel itchy all over, as if millions of fire ants are marching across my skin to the tune of Beyoncé’s “Formation.” I mentally push away the discomfort and hold out my hand. “I need to see what he wrote.” When he doesn’t budge, I add, “Please.”

Max blows out a long breath, then reaches into the back pocket of his jeans, pulls out his phone, and taps on the screen. “Here.”

With my lips pursed in concentration, I read the jumble of sentences confirming that I, Lina Santos, a twenty-five-year-old up-and-coming wedding planner to DC professionals, am officially a jilted bride. Wow. Okay. Just. Yeah. I couldn’t be more off-brand if I tried.

Still studying Andrew’s text, I narrow my eyes on the sentence that annoys me the most: Thanks to you, I can see the truth now.

Oh, really? And what truth did you help my fiancé see, Max? Hmm? God, I can just imagine those two talking crap about me in some grimy pub. Makes me want to scream.

I shove the phone back into his hand. “So to sum up: You and Andrew got shit-faced last night, chatted about something you claim not to remember, based on that conversation he’s decided not to marry me, and he doesn’t have the decency to tell me any of this himself.”

Max is slow to agree, but eventually he nods. “That’s the sense I get, yes.”

“He’s a dick,” I say flatly.

“I won’t argue with that,” Max replies, the beginnings of a smile daring to appear at the corners of his trash-talking mouth.

“And you’re an asshole.”

His face sours, but I refuse to give a rat’s ass about his feelings. Whatever nonsense he spouted off last night convinced my fiancé to tank our wedding. I’d been so close to marrying the right man for me, and a single drunken conversation derailed everything.

I straighten and grab my own phone off the dressing table, sending out an SOS to my mother, aunts, and cousins:

ME: Eu preciso de vocês agora.

Telling them I need them now will get their attention; doing so in Portuguese will get them here within seconds. In the meantime, I scowl at the worst best man I could have ever asked for. “Max, do me a favor, will you?”

He takes a step in my direction, his eyes pleading for forgiveness. “Anything.”

“Get. The fuck. Out.”





Chapter One

Present Day

Lina

The limousine door opens, and the wedding guests let out a collective gasp.

Because the bride’s wearing green—chartreuse, to be precise.

Bliss Donahue gracefully exits the car and fluffs the tiered taffeta skirt swallowing the bottom half of her frame, oblivious to the slack-jawed expressions of the people witnessing her arrival at the Northern Virginia inn she’s chosen for the affair.

Like a veteran member of the Royal Family, Bliss stands in front of her imagined subjects and waves a single hand in the air, her face upturned to catch the sunlight just so. After a thirty-second pause for maximum dramatic effect, she takes several dainty steps along the cobblestoned path, the back of her ruffled dress fluttering in the April breeze. A few of the older female guests cluck their tongues and tut at the sight of her jaw-dropping gown. Others visibly cringe.

Discreet as always, I stand a few feet away, ready to troubleshoot any mishap threatening to ruin Bliss’s day. Although I warned Bliss the dress might overshadow the finer details of the otherwise elegant event, she was adamant that the unusual color accentuated her best features. In my view, the dress highlights her questionable fashion sense, but as the wedding planner, my job is to bring the couple’s vision to life, no matter how wonky that vision may be. To be clear, I’m not averse to voicing my concerns if the situation calls for it, but in the end, this isn’t my day, and if Bliss wants to walk down the aisle in a dress that looks as if it was cobbled together with Post-its to satisfy a Project Runway unconventional-materials challenge, I can’t stop her.

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the unexpected. I’ve had great experiences with forward-thinking bridal attire (a wedding in which a lesbian couple both wore three-piece cream pantsuits is a personal favorite), and I’ll gladly support outside-the-box plans whenever possible—largely because I’d prefer the box didn’t exist. Sometimes, though, a ruffled chartreuse dress is just . . . tacky.

Now that Bliss has made her way inside the inn without incident, I pull out my phone and scan the ceremony checklist. I’m two lines down the list when Jaslene, my assistant and closest friend, appears at my back.

“Lina, we have a problem,” she says.

The news shoots through my veins like adrenaline. Of course we do. And that’s why I’m here. Armed with a renewed sense of purpose, I whip around and draw Jaslene away from the entrance to the wedding venue. “What is it?”

Jaslene’s face bears a relaxed expression. Good. There’s mischief in her dark brown eyes, however. Not good.

“Oh, no, no, no,” I tell her. “Your eyes are twinkling. If it’s funny to you, it’ll be terrifying to me.”

Grinning like a Cheshire cat, she grabs my arm and pulls me toward the stairs. “Come. It’s the groom. You need to see this for yourself.”

I follow her upstairs to the groom’s dressing suite and knock three times. Shielding my eyes, I open the door a crack. “If you’re not decent, you have fifteen seconds to cover up your important parts. I leave it to you to decide which parts need covering. One, two, three, four, five—”

“We’re decent. It’s okay,” Ian, the groom, calls out.

The strangled edge to his voice warns me that things are most definitely not okay, a conclusion confirmed by my own eyes when I sweep into the room and drop my hand. I blink. I gulp. Then I blurt out an obvious but clumsy question: “Where the hell are your eyebrows?”

Pointing in the direction of his three attendants, Ian groans. “Ask these assholes. They’re the ones who thought it would be hilarious to shave them off the night before my wedding.”

All but one of the assholes study the floor. Needing a target, I lock eyes with the lone male who isn’t avoiding my gaze.

Slumped in an oversize armchair, with his dirty-blond hair in disarray, the groomsman burps and shrugs his shoulders. “We were drunk. What can I say?” He turns his bloodshot eyes toward the groom. “Sorry, man.”

I stride across the room and bend to the caveman’s eye level, my hands clenched into fists as a preventive measure. “Sorry? That’s all you’ve got? There’s a bride out there who’s been dreaming about this day for months. She wants it to be perfect. She wants to remember it for years to come. Now she’ll remember it as the day she married a man with the skin of a newborn hamster above his eyes. And ‘sorry’ is all you have to say?”

Jaslene clutches a stretch of fabric on the back of my dress and pulls me upright. “Lina, this isn’t helping the situation.”

I bite the inside of my cheek as I compose my face into its usual cool-calm-and-collected expression. “You’re right. Okay. I’ll be back in a sec.”

Internally cursing the brotherhood of asinine groomsmen worldwide, I leave the room, dash down the stairs, and race to my car. Once inside my rusty-but-mostly-trusty Volvo, I rummage in the back seat until my hands land on the emergency kit. I pop it open, rooting around to confirm my makeup supplies are inside.

I return as quickly as my legs and sensible pumps allow, once again not daring to look at any of the wedding guests mingling in the foyer. When I reenter the room, I spy a woman who apparently joined the entourage while I was gone. I don’t bother to ask who she is or why she’s here. Chitchat won’t fix the groom’s brows, so I have no time for it.

After laying out the contents of my makeup kit on the dressing table, I drag a chair to the full-length mirror and pat the seat bottom. “Sit,” I tell Ian.

He regards me with a wary expression. “What are you going to do?”

“Do? I’m going to fix the mess your groomsmen created, of course.”

“Will it work?” he asks.

Probably not, but part of my job is to project confidence in challenging situations. I raise a small vial in the air. “This is fiber fill. It’s meant to enhance eyebrows, not create them out of whole cloth, but I’m hoping it’ll do the trick. Won’t be pretty. Still, you’ll have something up there when you say ‘I do.’”

Resembling a pack of hyenas with their tongues hanging out, the groomsmen huddle together and guffaw at Ian’s predicament. With friends like these, who needs jackasses? When I direct my death stare at them, they straighten and study the floor again.

Ian peers at the vial more closely, then gapes at me. “My hair’s brown. That’s blond.”

“Yes, well, grooms whose buddies shave off their eyebrows the night before their wedding don’t get to choose from an array of hair color options. It’s either this stuff or a Sharpie. I can cover the blond with brow powder closer to your natural hair color afterward. We don’t have much time, though. What’ll it be?”

He swipes a hand down his face. “All right. Let’s do this. But don’t make me look like Mr. Spock, okay?”

“Got it.” With a shake of my head, and a prayer to the wedding gods, I get to work, holding in my laughter as best I can. He should be so lucky.

Needless to say, my job’s ridiculously messy—and I love it.

* * *

Standing in a corner of the outdoor tent, I watch the guests mingle and dance, secure in the knowledge that I’ve averted another crisis. Yes, the groom appears to be sporting carpet scraps above his eyes. And okay, the flower girl did blurt out, “Hey, he looks like one of those Angry Birds.” Nevertheless, my clients are happy, and in the end that’s what matters. Considering I was literally working with nothing, I’m calling this Browtox procedure a win.

Now I can enjoy my favorite part of the reception: the phase after the couple honors their chosen traditions and there’s nothing left for me to do except watch for last-minute glitches. This is when I finally relax a bit. Not too much, though. Many a wedding has been destroyed by the effects of an open bar. My skin still crawls when I remember the groom who removed his new partner’s underwear instead of her garter. Gah.

“Nice save back there,” someone to my left says.

I turn my head and survey the person, instantly recognizing her. “Thanks. You were upstairs in the dressing suite, right?”

“That’s right,” the woman answers.

“Related to the groom?”

Nodding, she presses her lips together, then lets out a resigned breath. “Ian’s my first cousin.”

“He’s a nice guy,” I say.

The woman raises an exquisitely arched brow and snorts. “A nice guy who loses his appeal whenever he’s around his douchebag friends.”

As if on cue, one of the groomsmen bares his overbite and begins to gyrate his hips as he passes us. Another one drops to the ground and inches his body along the parquet dance floor like a worm. Yet another does the Robot.

I watch them impassively even though her assessment is spot-on. “I can neither confirm nor deny.”

“No need to say anything, really. They douche for themselves.” She pivots to face me and extends a manicured hand. The move causes the ends of her razor-sharp blond hair, simply but expertly styled in a chin-length bob, to sweep across her cheeks. “Rebecca Cartwright.”

“Lina Santos.”

As we shake hands, I marvel at Rebecca’s sleek hair, something I’ve never possessed. Even now, my naturally curly hair is fighting against the millions of bobby pins holding my bun in place. I love the versatility of my own locks, so I’m not envious in the least, but I am fascinated by the symmetry of this woman’s appearance. I don’t doubt that if I split her in half and brought both sides of her body together, they’d match perfectly.

“I was impressed with what you did up there,” Rebecca says. She leans in a fraction and gives me a conspiratorial smile. “That’s got to be something you don’t see every day, right? A groom with shaved eyebrows?”

I can’t help smiling as I speak. “Believe me, dealing with wacky stuff like that is a perk of the job.”

Rebecca edges closer. “The wedding dress, though. There’s a story there, I’m sure.”

“This time, I plead the Fifth.”

Her blue eyes dance, then she nods sharply, as though she’s made a decision. “Discreet, too. Do you ever lose your cool?”

Rebecca’s studying my face with such laser focus that I wouldn’t be surprised if the red dot from a sniper’s automatic weapon were trained on my forehead. But she isn’t being creepy, exactly—just intense—so I ignore the weird vibe and concentrate on her question. Lose my cool? Rarely. Still, the moment when I wanted to throttle that groomsman immediately comes to mind. “Sometimes I slip, unfortunately, but most times I’m the one to hold things together, because if I lose it, my clients will lose it, too.”

“How long have you been planning weddings?” she asks.

Ah, is that where this conversation is headed? She’s looking for her own wedding planner, maybe? I chance a glance at her hands.

“I’m not engaged,” she says, flashing her ringless fingers. “Just curious.”

The tips of my ears warm. “Sorry, it’s an occupational hazard. I’ve been in the business a little over four years. Dotting the I Do’s, that’s me.”

“Clever,” she says, nodding and smiling. “Do you enjoy it?”

I stare at her, taken aback by the question. No one’s bothered to ask me that before. But I know what I tell prospective clients, and the pitch comes to me easily. “I enjoy the challenge of helping a couple settle on a meaningful wedding theme. Relish the opportunity to organize a couple’s special day down to the tiniest detail. If something goes wrong, and something always goes wrong, I take pride in coming up with a workable solution and keeping everyone happy. Challenging venues, scheduling snafus, catering flubs—that stuff’s a rush rather than a burden.”

Rebecca tilts her head and studies me, a crease appearing between her brows. “There must be a downside, though. Or something that frustrates you to no end. No vocation, not even one you’re passionate about, is without its challenges.”

I would never tell Rebecca this, but planning weddings is my second shot. A valiant effort to reinvent myself after my first career as a paralegal failed spectacularly. I’m the daughter of Brazilian immigrants, both from humble origins. And after my father left us, I was raised by a single parent who worked tirelessly to ensure a better future for my brother and me. I owe it to my mother and tias to rise above my shortcomings and succeed in my chosen profession. After all, their hard-earned savings helped get my business off the ground. Now there’s no more room for error. And that knowledge weighs on me. So heavily that I fear I’ll botch this chance as badly as the first. That’s the downside: The pressure to succeed can be stifling at times. But I’m not sharing my personal baggage with a stranger. Never let them see you weak is my mantra, and it’s served me well for years.

I mentally tick through the minor complaints I’m comfortable sharing with Rebecca and settle on an innocuous one. “Indecisive clients occasionally test my patience, but all in all, it’s a great gig.”

Rebecca points her chin in the direction of the dance floor. “You’ve done a wonderful job here, I must say. Other than the fact that the bride looks like a celery stalk, this truly is a lovely wedding.”

“Tsk, tsk,” I say with a shake of my head. “That’s no way to talk about someone celebrating her special day. Bliss is lovely in every way that matters.”

A flush spreads across Rebecca’s cheeks. “You’re right. She is.” Then she shrugs. “But as of today, she’s family, which means we’re going to talk about her behind her back whenever the situation calls for it. That’s just our thing.”

Honestly, I can relate. Over the years, my cousins and I have developed a set of hand signals and eye cues to talk shit about our relatives or unsuspecting dates. Because we often use them during family get-togethers, music is usually playing in the background. At this point, my mother and aunts believe our inside communication system is an updated version of the Chicken Dance.

“So let me ask you this,” Rebecca continues. “Have you ever thought about expanding your business? Taking on a partner, perhaps?”

Nope, nope, nope. Despite the many challenges of being self-employed, my business is growing at a decent pace, and I don’t want anything to muck up the careful equilibrium I’m maintaining. I’d only alter the status quo for an opportunity that would take my company to the next level, and I’m hard-pressed to imagine any individual fitting that description. Knowing this, I deflect her question. “Well, tell me a little about you, Rebecca. Have you ever planned a wedding?”

Rebecca draws back, her mouth falling open as she considers me. “Never had the pleasure. Looks fun, though.”

Oh, now I see. I get this reaction at least once during every wedding. People get bowled over by the product—the breathtaking floral arrangements, the perfectly timed music, the stunning place settings, the heady scent of romance in the air—and convince themselves that they, too, can do what I do. “It is fun. But it also takes top-notch organizational skills and an exhausting attention to detail to pull off an event like this one. Thankfully, my assistant and I have a good system going. I’m hoping she’ll eventually agree to work with me full-time.” With perfect timing as usual, Jaslene glides across the dance floor, making a beeline for the DJ booth, the clipboard she stole from me tucked under her arm. And I know why: “Baby Got Back” is definitely on the couple’s do-not-play list. “But listen, if you’re interested in pursuing wedding planning as a career, an online course is a great place to start.”

Rebecca presses her lips together, plainly holding back a smile. “To be frank, you’re upending the plans I’ve already set in motion, but I think we were meant to meet today.”

What’s this woman’s deal? She’s not making any sense. “I don’t understand.”

She sighs and shakes her head, as if she’s frustrated with herself. “Sorry. I’m being cryptic, and you’re probably looking for the nearest exit. Basically, I have a proposition for you, but I don’t think this is the time or place to discuss it.” After removing an item from her clutch, she presents it to me. “Here’s my number. I can explain over lunch in the next few days if you’d like.”

Rebecca then slips away, disappearing into the circle of guests at the other end of the dance floor. I look down at the embossed business card on textured card stock as luxe as any wedding invitation I’ve ever seen. Along with her direct line in the 202 area code, it reads:

Rebecca Cartwright

Chief Executive Officer

The Cartwright Hotel Group

**A Forbes-Rated Hotel**

That moment when you realize you’ve just made an ass of yourself? Yeah. That.





Chapter Two

Max

From the seat of her throne—granted, it’s only a humongous desk-and-chair combo strategically placed above the average person’s eye level—my mother swings her gaze between Andrew and me. “To my surprise, the Cartwright Hotel Group is shaking things up. Rebecca Cartwright, the original owner’s granddaughter, has just been promoted and is at the helm now. She’s trying to cater to a different clientele. Wants to focus on expanding its upscale restaurant, booking more weddings, and becoming the place in the District for weekend spa retreats. She has lots of ideas and would like our expertise on how to promote them. Immediately. I need my best people on this, and you two, together, will bring the right combination of charm and know-how to this collaboration.”

I’m the charm. Andrew’s the know-how. Or so everyone thinks.

Fact is, my mother’s a bona fide hustler who can talk her way out of anything. This time, though, her explanation is pure unadulterated non–genetically modified crap. I wish she would just come out and say it: She doesn’t trust me to handle an important client account on my own.

I can’t say that I’m surprised. Unfortunately, this is familiar territory, a by-product of another truism I’ve come to accept: When my brother and I compete—and frankly, we don’t know how to do anything else—he always comes out ahead. Through no actual fucking effort on his part. What’s worse, even when we’re not knowingly competing, Andrew excels. My ex-girlfriend Emily certainly thought so. After spending a day in my older brother’s presence, she decided she was settling for mediocrity by being with me. She came to meet my mother. She left with a new dating manifesto. That was a fun Thanksgiving.

Andrew taps his pen on the legal pad resting in his lap. “We’ve worked with Rebecca before. Sounds great.”

I want to mimic his chipper demeanor, but that would be childish. Also, I’m trying to be a professional here; I gave Mom my word that I would.

A year ago, our mother brought us on as employees of her firm, Atlas Communications, a one-stop shop for marketing, publicity, and branding services located in Alexandria, Virginia. She did so only after we’d mastered the basics elsewhere—me in New York and Andrew in DC and Atlanta. Before then, she’d had no time for entry-level marketing and publicity associates, not even if they were her children. When she approached us about joining the firm, she made the offer on two conditions: First, we had to agree to come as a package deal, on the theory that we’d bring out the best in each other and one day take over the business together. Second, we had to promise that once we stepped through the company’s doors, we would forget that she’d given birth to us.

I get why she’s worried about perceived favoritism, and if I screw up at work, I fully agree that I deserve to suffer the consequences just like anyone else. But no amount of pretending can change the immutable fact that she’s our mother. Plus, the way she treats us here isn’t all that different from the way she treated us as kids. Case in point: She thought nothing of summoning us to the office on a Sunday for a non-emergency. I’m annoyed for this reason alone, and her insistence that my brother and I once again work as a pair stretches my patience beyond its normally abundant limits. “We’re not a set, you know,” I’ve told her. “Or conjoined twins. We can conceivably function on our own if you let us.”

Because here’s the thing: Andrew’s not as perfect as he pretends to be. Most of our great ideas originate with me. I’m not boasting, just stating facts. And if our mother ever untethered me from the robot claiming to be my brother, she’d realize it, too. If the past is any guide, though, that epiphany won’t be happening anytime soon. In her eyes, older necessarily means wiser, and regardless of what I do, Andrew will always have me beat on that score by two years.

“Don’t make that face, Max,” she says as she stares at me over the rims of her hawkish red-framed eyeglasses. “The client has a special task in mind that requires two people to work on separate projects, so I’m sending you both. There’s no need to take any more meaning from my decision than that. I’m catering to the client’s wishes and nothing more.”

Well, this is excellent news. My mind’s already whirring, brainstorming ways I can convince the client that what she wants is me—as her account manager. If I can step out of Andrew’s shadow and impress Rebecca, taking the lead on the Cartwright account would be the next logical step. And if that happens, maybe my mother will finally recognize the value I bring to the firm in my own right.

“If you’re both free,” my mother continues, “she’d love to meet with you next week to explain her plans. And given the volume of work her company sends our way, I suspect I don’t need to stress that you should make yourselves available at her convenience.”

Andrew nods like an obedient puppy. “Of course. We’ll make it happen. Right, Max?”

My mother surveys my face, her eyes narrowing to slits as though she’s expecting me to be difficult. Whyever would she think that?

I adopt an agreeable tone. “Of course.”

She rises from her chair and brings her hands together in a loud clap, essentially dismissing us. “Well, gentlemen, I really appreciate that you came in over the weekend. The client is eager to move forward on this as quickly as possible, so I didn’t want to waste any time.”

I’m tempted to note that she could have briefed us over email, but I just don’t have the energy to be the troublemaker today. Instead, I simply salute her on the way out of the office. “See you tomorrow.”

I’m almost at the elevators when Andrew jogs up behind me. “Hey, M. Hang on a minute.”

I slow my steps. “What’s up?”

When he reaches me, he plants his legs wide and pushes up the sleeves of his beige cashmere sweater. I’m in a fucking hoodie. I’m also itching to point out the pilling on the left side of his sweater, likely caused by his favorite designer messenger bag rubbing against it, but that’s the kind of minor shit that would fuck with his day and I’m trying not to be a jerk.

Andrew cocks his head as he studies me. Then he says, “Listen, I know the client might want us to work on different projects, but we’ll still brainstorm together, right? I think that’ll be a good thing for whatever final product we present.”

Ideally, we’d do the exact opposite of what he’s suggesting. I want to work on my own and show the client that, between Andrew and me, I’m the better bet. How else am I going to set myself apart from him?

We eye each other in silence as he waits for my answer, until the ding of the arriving elevator breaks the awkward spell. Before I step on, I say, “I figure that’ll depend on what the client wants, and we’ll know that soon enough. You coming?”

He takes a step back. “No, I’m going to answer a few emails before I go.” Smiling smugly, he taps a finger against his temple. “Might as well get some work done since I’m already here.” Unable to help himself, he adds, “That’s not your first instinct, though, is it? Being industrious.”

I ignore the jab. Be the better man, Max. “I’m going to shoot some hoops. Sure you don’t want to join me?”

His reaction is priceless. He shudders and scrunches his face like a pug’s.

Yeah, I didn’t think so, but hey, it was decent of me to ask.

“I’ll pass,” he says on a chuckle—make that a chortle. Andrew’s definitely the kind of guy who chortles.

“Fine. See you in”—I look down at my wristwatch—“less than twenty-four hours, then.”

Giving me a half-assed wave, he says, “Yeah. Sure.” When the elevator doors slide shut, he’s still standing in the same spot.

I wish Andrew and I were closer, but we don’t have the same interests, and we’ve never been friends. It would be great if we interacted on some level other than a competitive one, but the more my parents shoved us together, the more we tried to pull ourselves apart. Okay, that last bit’s mostly my fault. I’m mature enough to own the blame.

Who knows? Maybe this project will give Andrew and me the separation we need to connect in other ways. Or maybe we’ll kill each other. Admittedly, it could go either way.





Chapter Three

Lina

Bliss and Ian are somewhere over the Atlantic, heading to their honeymoon destination, so I’m officially off the clock for the rest of the weekend. Today’s to-do list is short: restock the fridge, live in my sweats, and binge on Netflix. But first . . . pão com manteiga and cafezinho.

By unanimous consent, Brazilians must consume two items—and only two items—for breakfast each day: buttered bread and coffee. If a person deviates from this menu, they’re probably staging a coup. Or they’re first-generation Brazilian Americans like me, in which case, bring on the bacon-and-egg sandwich. This morning, though, I woke up craving a traditional Brazilian breakfast, and my favorite place to get one is Rio de Wheaton, the grocery store my mother and aunts operate out of a strip mall just off Georgia Avenue in Wheaton, Maryland. Side note: For years, I’ve begged them to change the name. For just as many years, they’ve ignored me.

It doesn’t take me long to get to the store from my apartment in College Park. The bell affixed to the door jingles when I enter, and everyone inside stops in mid-motion to inspect the newest arrival. Passing a display of Havaianas flip-flops wedged between the cassava flour and masking tape, I breathe in the sweet and buttery aroma of freshly baked bread permeating the air. A third of the store’s space is dedicated to a tiny café—literally consisting of three round tables and not enough chairs—where the sisters serve cafezinho brasileiro, or the equivalent of Starbucks on steroids, and pão, in this case, a warm, flaky roll served fresh throughout the day.

“Bom dia,” I call out. “Como vai?”

“Filha, um minuto,” my mother says with a smile before she returns her attention to the customer at the register. As she hands the man his change, she winks at him. “Obrigada.”

Hang on. Is my mother flirting? That’s a first, and I’d love to see more of it. I don’t think she’s dated anyone after divorcing my father over ten years ago. The flush on her cheeks is promising, though, and the way she’s leaning forward, her head cocked to the side, suggests she’s into this guy. Hallelujah! As far as I’m concerned, my mother deserves all the booty calls her heart desires to make up for my father’s lack of affection during their marriage.

Lugging a twenty-four-pack of Guaraná Brazilia in her hands, Viviane, my mother’s oldest sister and our family’s matriarch, marches my way and gives me a hurried kiss on each cheek. Tia Viviane operates in two modes: “busy” and “on overdrive.” Her body already moving in the direction of her next destination, she looks at me over her shoulder. “Tudo bem?”

“Everything’s fine,” I tell her. For a few seconds, I’m rooted to the spot in the center aisle as people shuffle past me without any real sense of direction. They don’t appear to be interested in buying anything; they’re just . . . here. Jaslene says Puerto Rican storeowners have bodega cats. Well, Brazilian storeowners tend to attract bodega people. Such as the guy from the neighborhood who’s enamored with my younger cousin Natalia. He’s currently pretending to watch futebol on the TV suspended from the corner of the café’s ceiling, while the object of his unrequited love, who is very engaged to be married, is wiping down the salgadinhos display. Coincidence? I think not.

“Oi mulher!” Natalia says as she drapes the dish towel over her shoulder. “Scrounging for free food again?”

“Respect your elders, brat.”

At warp speed, she grabs the dish towel, flicks it at my chest, and leans in, lowering her voice so only I can hear what she says next. “You have a white ring around your mouth. What is it? Pastry residue? Pre-come?”

I jump back and quickly wipe at my face before I realize she’s doubled over in glee. “Har-har. Hilarious as always.”

“Why was my observation even plausible, prima?” she asks through her laughter. “I mean, what the hell have you been doing in your spare time?”

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The truth is, if there were a white ring around my mouth, there’d be no chance it came from a blowjob, considering I haven’t been with anyone for well over a year. And since my livelihood depends on working most weekends from March through September, I don’t have time to meet potential partners in any case. These days, my orgasms are self-induced, battery-powered, and delivered in under five minutes—if I’m really feeling sassy, I’ll stretch it to ten. So, yeah, no way it’s pre-come. Remnants of a powdered doughnut, though? Entirely possible. “Whatever, Natalia. My love life, or lack of it, isn’t open for discussion—or dissection.” I snap my fingers at her. “Now get me coffee and bread and make it quick.”

“Pfft. Get it yourself. It’s break time, and I need to call Paolo.” She removes her apron and hands it over, giving me her ever-present smirk. “You’re welcome to take my place for a bit. If you want to make yourself useful, that is.” A loud pop of her glossy lips punctuates her point, and then she waves goodbye as she saunters toward the door.

“Don’t forget we have an appointment on Wednesday,” I call after her.

“It’s my dress fitting. Of course I’ll be there,” she shouts back before she slips outside.

I throw the apron over my head, tie it around my waist, and wait for it in . . . three, two, one . . .

“Wash your hands,” my mother warns.

Every. Time. As if I don’t know better. But do I snap back at her? Of course not. I value my life as much as the next person. “Will do, Mãe.” I look around the store for my other aunt’s short, springy curls. “Where’s Tia Izabel?”

My mother’s other older sister is the quietest of the bunch—and the least interested in running the store.

“She went to run a few errands,” my mother says.

Mãe’s still busy at the register, so I sneak a kiss on her cheek, then stride to the back. After my hands are properly washed and sanitized, I return to the counter and use tongs to swipe a bread roll; I pop a piece into my mouth and sigh in contentment. Definitely worth the drive.

My mother finally breaks free of her register duties and slips a hand around my waist. “How was the wedding? This was the one with the green dress, right?”

She takes great joy in living vicariously through the people who hire me, and she has an excellent memory, too.

“It went well,” I tell her after I finish chewing the bread. “The dress was as interesting as you thought it would be. Oh, and the groom’s friends shaved off his eyebrows the night before.”

My mother looks up at me, her dark eyes growing wide as saucers. “Wow. I didn’t see that one coming. But you handled it?”

I give her a do-you-even-know-who-I-am look, my face screwed up playfully. “Of course I handled it.”

She nods, pulling me closer to her side. “I’m proud of you, filha.”

“Thanks, Mãe.” Her words make me stand a little taller. That’s all I’ve ever wanted—to make Mãe and my tias proud. When each of their marriages imploded, the sisters banded together to raise their children, taking turns cooking, babysitting, and driving to and from school and extracurriculars. They spent their remaining time cleaning other people’s homes, until they saved enough to open this store. Because of them, I’m a college graduate; my older brother, Rey, is a physician’s assistant; and Natalia’s in heavy demand as a self-employed makeup artist. Bringing up the rear and no less impressive is Tia Izabel’s daughter, Solange, who’s completing graduate school and preparing to change the world.

“Think you’ll get any more work out of this one?” my mother asks.

“More work? Maybe. It all depends on timing. If someone’s engaged and hasn’t booked a planner, they’ll probably call to feel me out.”

And then there’s Rebecca Cartwright. She mentioned a proposition, and I’m curious to know what it is. I make a mental note to call her first thing Monday morning and set a time for us to meet. At the very least, I can add her to my growing list of contacts in the area. Even a loose connection with the CEO of a hotel as highly regarded as the Cartwright could be useful someday.

An actual paying customer with goods in her hands shuffles to the counter. My mother wanders off to help her, allowing me to return to my love affair with the bread in my hand. I’m happily chomping on said bread when in walks Marcelo, a family friend and the owner of Something Fabulous, the boutique dress shop where I rent space for my business.

“Olá, pessoal,” he says grandly, his voice booming over the crowd’s cheers on the TV screen. “Tudo bem?”

“Tudo,” Tia Viviane says, half of her body hidden behind the reach-in beverage cooler she’s stocking. “E você?”

He gestures with one hand to indicate he’s so-so, then he saunters over to Tia Viviane and drops a kiss on her forehead. They’ve been friends for ages, having met decades ago through the extensive social network that helps Brazilian immigrants in Maryland acclimate to life in America. That same network found all three sisters their husbands, none of whom stuck around after the marriages ended.

As for Marcelo and Viviane, I suspect their friendship comes with benefits, but I’ve never been bold enough to confirm my suspicions. Tia Viviane’s lethal when a pair of Havaianas are within reach.

Marcelo sees me and his eyes dim, causing me to question the truth of his next words. “Carolina, I was hoping I’d see you here. I have news.”

My chewing slows as I place the rest of my bread on a napkin and brush the crumbs off the front of my T-shirt. “What’s up, Marcelo?”

He casually rests his forearms on the counter. “The real estate company gave notice Friday afternoon that they’re increasing the rent for the next leasing period. By seven percent.” Sighing, he steps back and motions as though he’s wiping his hands of the situation. “And as far as I’m concerned, that’s it. I can’t keep up anymore. Not with everyone buying wedding dresses online. Or renting them. So I’m going to join my daughter in Florida and find a little shop there to sell my inventory for a few more years. Eventually, I’ll retire and spend all day fishing. It’s time.” Marcelo reaches over and covers my hand. “I know this affects you, too. And if I could afford it, I’d stay, but I was struggling already, and this will make it worse.”

I force my words past the massive lump of disappointment clogging my throat. “When does the lease end again?” I already know the answer, but hearing the expiration date out loud will force me to confront the reality of my situation rather than bury it.

“Sixty days,” he says on a sigh.

Well, that’s real enough for me, and it’s no small thing. An office in the District is essential to my business. Most of my clients are busy professionals who appreciate the convenience of meeting in a central location where they can also go to other shops and restaurants as part of their evening plans. A home base just off Connecticut Avenue communicates stability, a certain gravitas that doesn’t need to be explained. Any charlatan can whip up some business cards at a local copy shop and call themselves a wedding planner; a registered business address assures a couple their coordinator won’t pack up her portable office and run off with their money.

I don’t require a lot, really—an office and a cubicle are enough—which is why my arrangement with Marcelo met my needs perfectly. Because I didn’t take up much square footage, he could afford not to charge me market price for it. I know from my own abandoned efforts to find office space a few years ago that leasing even a closet in the District will make it almost impossible for me to pay the rent on my own apartment. And even if I can find an affordable alternative, it’ll probably be a step down from my current location, so the optics of the transition won’t do me any favors, either.

Dammit. I can’t screw up. Not again.

Marcelo’s decision has knocked me off-kilter, and I don’t know what to do to right myself. Tears threaten to fall, but a glance between Viviane and my mother, the former of whom is wearing a stern expression, dries my eyes instantly. Right. Having learned my own harsh lessons when I was a wide-eyed innocent, I now know the rules well: We must never let our emotions get the better of us; doing so is either a sign of weakness, one that diminishes our well-earned respect, or a mark of combativeness, which will cause people to say we’re irrational. And as women—women of color, more specifically—we simply can’t afford to be perceived in those terms.

Too bad I’m a softie. Apt to cry or sob the moment anyone manages to draw the slightest bit of emotion out of me. When I was younger, my brother and cousins teased me about it mercilessly. Bebê chorão, they’d chant. Crybaby. It didn’t bother me much then; how much harm could come from that pesky trait, really? As an adult, however, I discovered the answer was plenty—certainly more than I could handle. So I developed a persona over the years, to manage my feelings. I’m no-nonsense. A badass. Made of Teflon and impervious to minor insult or offense. I’ll never again be that woman who made a blubbering fool of herself over a guy. Never again be that person who crumbled in a professional setting and lost the respect of her peers. Strength is a state of mind, and I’m willing it into existence, dammit.

I straighten and give Marcelo a tight smile. “None of this is your fault, Marcelo. You couldn’t have predicted a rent hike this ugly. I’m sure I’ll be able to find something else. So don’t worry about me. Everything will be fine.”

He studies my face—undoubtedly detecting my bullshit but not calling me on it—his mouth pressed into a deep frown. “You’re sure, querida?”

The endearment tries to slip through my defenses, but I mentally build a barricade against showing any emotion. “Certa.”

Everyone around me—Marcelo, Tia Viviane, my mother, even the guy pretending to watch soccer who’s eavesdropping on the conversation—visibly relaxes, the tension of the moment cut by my assurances that all will end well. And it must. End well, that is. Because I have no other choice—my career and livelihood are at stake.

Sighing on the inside at the detour in my day, I make a last-minute addition to my to-do list: eat my feelings. My gaze lands on the half-eaten roll of bread. No, that just won’t do; it’s way too basic. I need fat, and carbs, and tons of sugar. Where’s a goddamn powdered doughnut when you need one?





Chapter Four

Lina

Note to self: A dozen glazed doughnut holes can work wonders on your disposition.

After an evening of bingeing on TV and sweets, I greet the new week with optimism and a plan, one that includes an early-morning meeting with Rebecca Cartwright. Now more than ever, I need to cultivate my contacts and keep my eyes peeled for new business opportunities, so when I contacted her last night and she offered to see me first thing this morning, I jumped at the chance.

According to the quick research I did during the Metro ride here, the Cartwright is one of three boutique hotels owned by the Cartwright Group. The flagship location is in the District; the other two properties are in Northern Virginia. In another life, this building housed a bank, and remnants of its austere beginnings, such as the large white columns that flank its breathtaking entrance, complement the simple yet eclectic interior design. Thanks to a massive skylight in the center of the circular lobby, the marble floors gleam, and the sun’s rays highlight every detail, from the abstract art adorning the textured walls to the steel lines of the contemporary furniture. It all comes together to give the hotel an upscale yet unpretentious vibe.

The sound of Rebecca’s heels enters the space before she does. As she approaches, her tinny voice floats through the room. “Lina, thanks so much for coming to see me on such short notice.”

I rise from the sleek yellow leather couch and extend my hand. Her grip is firm but not overpowering. We make eye contact for the customary few seconds and pump our clasped hands three times; I bet we both attended business-etiquette workshops in high school.

“It’s good to see you again, Rebecca.”

“Let’s sit for a minute,” she says, gesturing to a small table by a window, the hustle and bustle on New Hampshire Avenue audible just beyond the pane as we settle in. “So here’s the deal. We’re rebranding in several areas, one of them being wedding services. I’ve been searching for a wedding planner to direct this new vision for our hotels, serve as its public face, and plan weddings, of course. You impressed me on Saturday. So much so that I’d like you to put yourself in the running for the position, assuming the thought of directing wedding services for a Forbes five-star-rated hotel with an award-winning restaurant appeals to you.”

I’m stunned, but I manage to drum up a decent question. “You’re not looking for someone to direct general event planning, right?”

She smiles and nods. “Right. I’m looking for someone to focus on weddings and build our brand in that specific area.”

“Okay, got it.” I wipe my palms on my skirt and puff out a short breath. “Another question, then. I currently work with an assistant. She would need to be a part of any venture I consider. Is that possible?”

This time, Rebecca’s nod is even more vigorous. “If we offer and you accept a position as director of wedding services, you’d be authorized to hire your own select staff. If that means hiring your current assistant, I’d have no problem with that. I’d authorize 50K for a full-time assistant.”

“And my salary?”

“Double that,” she says. “For work at all three hotels, of course.”

Inside, I’m flailing like Kermit the Frog. One hundred thousand dollars. Holy shit. Is this really happening? I want to squee, but I contain my excitement as I process the possibilities. If I land this job, my lease problem wouldn’t even matter anymore. I’d be moving into larger, cozier digs at the Cartwright—and doubling my income, too. This is the break I never imagined I’d get, and my mother and tias would be ecstatic. But I can’t get ahead of myself just yet. I’ll need to keep looking for alternative office space in case this doesn’t work out. Still, am I going to try to get this gig? Shit yeah. “You’d like me to interview for the position? Today?”

Until now, Rebecca’s navigated this interaction confidently, but in this moment she seems less assured, her hands flitting around as though she’s nervous. I can see that my question, although an obvious one, isn’t easy to answer.

“I’ll be honest,” she says. “I knew the moment I met you I’d have a hard time choosing between you and my top prospect to date.”

Oh. Bummer. There’s someone else—presumably, an equally impressive and highly qualified someone else—who’s already a standout in her eyes. Well, I guess I’ll just need to work doubly hard to prove I’m the better candidate.

“So this is where my marketing folks factor into the equation,” Rebecca says. She glances at her wristwatch and stands. “Let’s move to one of our conference rooms. We can talk more there.”

I jump up from my seat, a bundle of energy waiting to be unleashed, then force myself to simmer down. “Sure. After you.”

Rebecca strides down the hall, her upper body twisted around so she can face me. “It just so happens that my talented marketing people are visiting today. I figure we can all get together in the conference room, and I can further explain my proposition and get them up to speed in one meeting. They’d be heavily involved in helping you present your ideas, and I think you’ll get along with them splendidly. Sound okay to you?”

“Sounds great.”

Rebecca leads me into a meeting room and motions to a seat at the head of a glass conference table. “Make yourself comfortable. Do you need anything before we begin? Coffee? Water?”

If there’s one thing I do well, it’s going an entire day without drinking a single ounce of fluid. Dehydration is a real possibility at any given moment. And when I’m nervous—as I am now—thoughts of spilling liquids on myself, or worse, thoughts of spilling them on someone else, only add to my agita. So no, I don’t want anything to drink. Pasting on a measured smile in the hopes of projecting confidence, I settle into the chair and smooth my hands over the front of my pencil skirt. “I’m fine, thank you.”

Rebecca, who’s been leaning against the threshold, straightens. “Great. I’ll grab the guys so we can get started. Back in a sec.”

Now that I’m alone, I take in my surroundings, scanning the space for a focal point to latch on to during the meeting, should I need to calm my nerves. It’s a trick I’ve used since college, when I realized that my mother’s old advice about picturing everyone in their underwear wouldn’t work for me. Back then, I’d get caught up in guessing which brands my classmates and professors were using, which styles they’d favor, and so on. There’s nothing worse than imagining your econ professor in a plaid tie and leopard-print thong. Nothing.

My gaze is immediately drawn to a bronze sculpture of a phoenix resting on the only credenza in the room. That’ll do. And I imagine I will need it. Rebecca can’t fool me with her business casual attire and friendly demeanor. Every step of this process is part of my interview, and the marketing people she nonchalantly referred to as “the guys” will either help or hurt my chances of landing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So I need to make a good first impression. If I demonstrate my expertise and convince them of my competence, maybe they’ll go the extra mile for me. And since I’m essentially competing for the position, every advantage, no matter how small, matters.

A minute later, Rebecca’s laugh carries down the hall as though it’s a trumpet heralding her arrival. I rise, straighten my jacket, and stretch my lips. When the door opens and “the guys” walk in, all the fresh air in the room rushes out, displaced by a sudden influx of toxic atmosphere that makes breathing a struggle. I could use a strong slap on my ass to shock me into gulping in much-needed oxygen, but I’m not a newborn, and these men couldn’t care less whether I’m okay.

And I’m not. Okay, I mean.

Because there, in all his gorgeous and villainous glory, stands my former fiancé—or as I’ve renamed him since the breakup, Asshole Majora. And if that’s not bad enough, the worst best man ever—his brother, Asshole Minora—is standing by his side.

Fuck my life into next week.

What are they doing here? Together? Last I heard, Andrew had relocated to Atlanta and joined the marketing team of a global law firm. His brother lives and works in New York, or so I thought. Well, not today apparently. Today, they’re starring in my nightmare. And if their bulging eyes are any guide, they weren’t expecting this almost-a-family reunion, either. Andrew even looks a little green around the gills. So it’s no surprise, then, that they don’t do or say anything, presumably waiting for me to set the tone of this ill-fated encounter.

Rebecca regards me with a cheerful smile as she addresses them. “Gentlemen, meet Carolina Santos. Says we can call her Lina for short.” To me, she says, “This is Andrew and Max. They’re brothers and colleagues.”

Merda. This is not how I imagined this day would go. Not even close. I wanted to show Rebecca her instincts about me were right. Instead, she’ll discover in the next few seconds that one of two wedding planners she’s interviewing for an amazing position was jilted by the very marketing agent she thinks so highly of. How am I supposed to convince her that Andrew and I can work together to build the hotel’s wedding brand? I’m not even sure we can.

And if Rebecca’s weighing the pros and cons of two comparably impressive candidates, would discovering that one of them comes with a lengthy vacation’s worth of baggage push her to go with the other one instead? Why would she sign up for this drama if she discovered it before she’d invested any appreciable time in that prospect?

There’s more to this than just the uneasiness of working with a former fiancé, too. I make my living creating the illusion of happily-ever-afters. Admitting I didn’t succeed in finding my own kills the mood. What I do inevitably gets filtered through this lens even though it has no bearing on my skills as a planner. Sure, it’s not my fault, and no, it’s not a scarlet letter by any means, but if people are honest with themselves, they would readily concede that knowing I’m a jilted bride makes them feel sorry for me—especially given the nature of my business.

Honestly, I wish I could let a river of tears run down my face, but I absolutely refuse to let anyone in this room regard me as a weakling who doesn’t deserve their respect. I need a way to neutralize the situation so I can function at the level Rebecca expects from me. I simply can’t let this reunion play out in her presence.

The idea isn’t even fully formed in my brain when I clasp Andrew’s hand and give him a firm, desperate handshake. “It’s great to meet you, Andrew. Rebecca says you’re talented, so I’m excited about the possibility of our working together.”

His mouth opens, closes, and opens again, while I implore him with my eyes to go along with this harebrained plan to pretend we’re strangers. “It’s . . . uh . . . great to meet you, too.”

Yeah, stiff as always, even when he’s flustered. He looks good, though. His hair’s grown out at the sides and top, and his fair skin glows with vitality. The navy suit he’s wearing flatters his broad shoulders and trim waist as if his body regularly serves as the mold for menswear mannequins. All that’s fine and dandy, but here’s what I understand now: Andrew’s like a perfect résumé—there’s either a ton of embellishing going on or a bunch of unflattering stuff never made it onto the page.

Max, for his part, appears to have experienced late-onset puberty between twenty-five and today o’clock—because he did not look this handsome the last time I saw him. Or maybe I wasn’t in the right mind-set to notice all those years ago. Well, in any case, time has been ridiculously kind to Andrew’s younger brother. From his dark, effortlessly tousled hair to the sharp cut of his jaw, the individual parts combine to make an impressive whole. Shorter than his brother by a couple of inches, Max still manages to dominate the room. He couldn’t blend into the background if he tried. Also, he’s cute in the eyes and thick in the thighs—a deadly combination that’s wasted on him.

Max clears his throat and glides forward to join the introductions. “Lina, it’s a pleasure.”

I ignore his outstretched hand. There’s a moment of unease as we stand there staring at each other, until he gestures toward the conference table, an ear-to-ear grin masking his manipulative tendencies.

“Shall we?” he asks. “I’m looking forward to hearing a little more about you.”

It’s not lost on me that Max has settled into his role like an Academy Award–winning actor while his older brother’s flopping around like a stuffed animal being dragged by a toddler. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, but I’m too anxious to absorb it.

“Sounds great,” I say.

After blowing out a slow and what I hope is an imperceptible breath, I scramble back to my chair.

Andrew finally recovers and joins us at the table. His face is flushed and there’s a sheen of perspiration above his brows. Good. He deserves to be uncomfortable. We talked only once after the non-wedding, when he’d mustered the courage to explain that he was looking for more. More affection, more conversation, more sex, more everything. He’d been so calm and proper as he rattled off his new-to-me wishes, a laundry list of items that probably reflected Max’s wants, not his. Today, though, his unflappable demeanor is nowhere to be found, and knowing I put him in this panicked state sparks joy in me.

“So . . . uh . . . Ms. . . . uh . . . Santos, tell us about your business,” Andrew says as he wipes his forehead with a handkerchief.

Max covers his disappointment in his brother’s performance by swiping a hand down his face, but I catch the way his eyes roll to the back of his head before he clears his expression of any emotion.

My chest expands as I take a deep, calming breath. Okay, they’re not blowing my cover; that’s encouraging. So I guess we’re doing this, then. And sure, I’m fully aware this could be a big mistake. Huge. Like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman you-work-on-commission-don’t-you huge. But there’s no going back now, is there?





Chapter Five

Max

As subtly as I can manage, I watch Andrew’s reaction to this monumental turn of events. He’s sitting up straighter than usual, appearing cool and unbothered, but one of his knees is bouncing at an alarming rate. Oh man, if I had to guess, he’s seconds away from peeing his pants.

This farce is going to blow up in our faces. Guaranteed. But what other choice do I have than to run with it? Lina plainly didn’t want to acknowledge that she knows us, and now that we’ve followed her lead, extracting ourselves from this charade would strain our developing relationship with Rebecca.

I study our co-conspirator as she describes her business. Her appearance hasn’t changed much since I last saw her—when she told me to get the fuck out of her wedding suite. Same almond-shaped eyes, same pouty mouth, same regal air about her. The hair’s shorter, though, a cloud of curls resting on her shoulders, but otherwise she looks exactly like the woman who displayed little emotion when I told her that Andrew would be a no-show for the ceremony. Okay, maybe her brown skin tone’s warmer, but she’s not duping me; that sun-kissed complexion is camouflaging an icy interior. Do not go anywhere near that woman, Max. She’s a rattlesnake—coiled up tight and ready to strike at her innocent prey at any moment. Shit, you still bear the fang marks.

“I plan six to eight weddings at various stages in any given month,” she says. “So my work requires lots of juggling. But I enjoy the challenge, and seeing the result always gives me immense satisfaction . . .”

It’s a script. I’m sure of it. I can see the effort she’s making to recall what she’s supposed to say. Every few seconds, her eyes dart to one side as though she’s looking at something in her peripheral vision. I follow her gaze to the statue of a phoenix across the room. Maybe she’s engaging in a visualization exercise to calm her nerves? Or maybe the bird’s just interesting. Who the hell knows? In any case, there’s no denying she’s good. Really good. But she needs to loosen up. If it weren’t so obviously rehearsed, her pitch would improve tenfold.

When Lina’s done, Rebecca nods politely, and then our client swings her gaze back to Andrew and me. “You guys already know that I want to shake things up here. I’m taking the reins, and my grandfather’s fully on board with the changes I’ve proposed. But there’s one problem. I know absolutely nothing about weddings. Which means I need to hire someone who does.” She turns to Lina. “I heard everything you just said, but I’m a visual person. I want to see what that new vision would look like, and how the person I hire will incorporate everything the Cartwright has to offer in one compelling package. How would you make use of our award-winning restaurant? How would you transform the ballrooms? What do you bring to the table that no one else does? How would you sell what you do so that a couple looking to hire you decides it’s a no-brainer? Show me what the revamped website would look like. Brochures. A display at a wedding expo, and so on.”

Damn, if Rebecca’s willing to put this much effort into the search, how much does Lina stand to make if Rebecca ultimately hires her? Jesus, I don’t want to know. I might be tempted to switch careers.

“Essentially a mock-up of what it would be like to have me as your hotel’s wedding coordinator,” Lina says.

Rebecca points at Lina with both hands. “Yes. Exactly.”

“How long would I have?” Lina asks. Her brows are furrowed, the first sign so far that she’s wary of what Rebecca’s proposing.

“Around five weeks. I’d like to get the position locked down before the next board meeting.”

Lina’s pinched expression softens. “That’s doable.” She points at my brother and me. “And these gentlemen are going to help me package it?”

“One of them, yes.”

That captures my attention like no other statement does. “Only one of us?” I ask Rebecca.

Rebecca gives us all a sheepish grin. “Well, here’s the thing: Before I met Lina this weekend, I’d made inquiries about potentially hiring someone else. I was at home mulling it over when my boyfriend started watching Hell’s Kitchen and that’s when the light bulb went off. A weeks-long interview with a demo component. Hmm, I thought. Why not do something like that with Lina and the other candidate?” She looks at Lina. “I won’t share his name for privacy reasons. Anyway, I got excited, emailed the agency, and here we are. So I’d like to go through this process with both candidates and choose based on my general impressions, your references—send me those, by the way—and your ability to sell me on your vision. I’m guessing it would make the most sense for us to split the group into two teams and plan for the presentations to be made around the middle of May. How does that sound?”

Andrew audibly gulps, causing everyone’s gazes to land on him.

“Sorry,” he says, swallowing. “I think I’m a little parched. That works for me.”

“Same,” Lina says succinctly.

“Me, too,” I chime in.

“And I’ll leave it to you all to decide how to split the teams.” She looks down at her phone. “Maybe you guys can chat a bit while I make a quick call?” To Andrew and me, she says, “But don’t leave when you’re done here, okay? I need to speak with you about the restaurant and our spa services. Oh, and website analytics.”

We nod and Rebecca dashes out of the room.

The wheels in my brain are turning so quickly they might pop off. This situation couldn’t be more perfect. My goal is to convince Rebecca that I’m the better person to manage the hotel’s account, and she’s devised a hiring process that necessarily puts Andrew and me on different sides. How can I not shine under these circumstances?

Lina relaxes into her seat, her expression unreadable. “Let’s get a few things straight before we hash out the details. First, this is an unpleasant development, but I’m committed to making the best of the situation. Second, if I had a choice, I wouldn’t work with either of you, but I don’t have a choice, so Max, we’ll”—she makes air quotes—“work together for the duration of this project. Third, I don’t intend on taking your advice, Max, so don’t bother offering it. Rebecca doesn’t need to know the extent of our collaboration, and I’m more than willing to take full responsibility for the pitch. Your safest bet is to simply stay out of my way and let me do the heavy lifting. Are we clear?”

Well, damn. How can I not shine under these circumstances? The pessimistic voice in my head makes a rare appearance and whispers, That’s how.

Andrew clears his throat and leans forward. “Hang on. This is getting out of hand. Maybe we should take a step back and consider coming clean to Rebecca. We can explain that—”

Lina and I shake our heads, and he clamps his mouth shut.

“How would you go about doing that, Andrew?” Lina asks. “Are we going to tell her that we got flustered and decided to pretend not to know each other?”

“It’s the truth, isn’t it?” he asks.

“The truth makes us look like fools,” I point out.

“We are fools,” Lina adds. “Look, I don’t know what I was thinking in the moment. I panicked. And I’m not proud of myself. But telling Rebecca that we do know each other is going to open a can of worms that isn’t going to endear her to any of us. And I really, really want a shot at this job, okay?”

I catch the slight tremor in her voice, and a part of me warms to her cause. Despite the absurdity of the situation, she’s trying to maintain control over it, and I find that admirable.

Lina taps her lips with two fingers, the wrinkling between her brows suggesting she’s deciding how much to share with us. Then, after sighing in resignation, she speaks. “I don’t expect either of you to care, but this opportunity would solve a huge problem for me, not to mention it’s the type of position that will take my career to the next level. If my and Andrew’s prior relationship had any true bearing on whether Rebecca should hire me, I’d be the first to say we need to confess what we did. It shouldn’t matter, though, not in a fair world. So let’s just do what we need to do and hope everyone gets what they want. It’s five weeks, not a lifetime.” She stares at Andrew, unapologetic determination apparent in her unflinching gaze. “You owe me this.”

He does owe her this—and so do I.

My brother puffs out his cheeks as he rubs the back of his neck and contemplates Lina’s scheme. “You’ll work with Max?” he asks her.

“Ostensibly,” she says with a shrug.

Andrew looks between us, until his lips curve into a smug grin. “That’s fine, then. I’ll work with the other planner. We’ll coordinate our schedules so that we don’t run into each other to the extent that we’re here.” He puckers his mouth as he considers her. “Seems odd, don’t you think? I’ll be helping your competition.”

“I’m not too worried about that,” she says, her face a blank, uninterested canvas.

Man, this woman’s something else. A minute ago, she admitted she was in a panic; now she’s driving this conversation, and Andrew and I are just along for the ride. I wish I could say I’m partly responsible for her confidence, but she’s already announced that she intends to ignore anything I tell her. How did this day go off the rails so quickly?

Lina pulls out her phone. “What’s your number, Max? I’ll give you a call so we can discuss the bare minimum we need to do together.”

On autopilot, I recite my number and repeat it for her.

“I’ll call you soon,” she says, and then she strides out of the conference room without a backward glance, her hips swiveling to match the brisk pace of her steps.

After shaking out my arms and massaging a kink in my neck, I turn back to my brother. I’m itching to wipe the self-satisfied expression off his face, but there’s nothing I can say that would accomplish that objective.

“So it looks like we’ll be competing on behalf of our wedding planners,” he says.

“I guess so. I think it’s safe to say I’m working at a disadvantage.”

Andrew snorts.

I’ve never heard him make a sound like that. It startles me. Kind of reminds me of the first time I heard my mother fart. “What’s funny?”

“Nothing.” He raises an imaginary glass to simulate a toast. “May the best man win.”

“May the best wedding planner win, you mean.”

“Yeah,” he says with a wink. “That, too.”

Someone’s acting cockier than he was just yesterday. That’s fine. Because this is what we do best: try to one-up each other. I just need to come out on top. And once I remind Lina that cooperating with me will help her hit Andrew where it’ll hurt him the most, she’ll reconsider her stance toward me.

Damn, what a day. I bet most brothers would be having a different kind of debriefing right now, one that focused on the bizarre coincidence of seeing your former fiancée under these circumstances. But that isn’t and has never been us. The one time Andrew opened up to me, he ended up bailing on his wedding. It’s probably better for everyone if we limit our conversations to work topics.

“What do we tell Mom?” I ask.

Andrew grimaces. “Only what she needs to know. The basics of the assignment. If we’re committed to treating Lina as though she’s just another wedding planner, then there really is no point in disclosing details that’ll put Mom under unnecessary stress.”

Andrew’s not fooling me. He doesn’t want to remind our mother of the one time he disappointed her. For weeks after his wedding was canceled, my mother tried to convince Andrew he was making the biggest mistake of his life. No woman he’s dated since Lina has met my mother’s approval, and unfortunately, Andrew’s the type of man who needs it.

“Okay, we won’t tell her,” I say.

He sags against his seat. “Good. So what’s your plan where Lina’s concerned?”

I wave a finger back and forth in front of my face. “Uh-uh-uh. There will be no sharing of information, or brainstorming, or joint strategy sessions. I’ll work on Lina’s pitch, and you’ll work with your person on his. Otherwise it wouldn’t be fair.”

Andrew’s gaze bounces around the room as he considers the change in our usual state of play. “Fine. Good luck, then.”

Remembering the way Lina skewered us in less than thirty seconds, I think it’s safe to say I’m going to need it.





Chapter Six

Lina

“This is a disaster,” Natalia whines as she inspects herself in the mirror. “I look like I’m starring in a Disney on Ice production. Or competing in the World Figure Skating Championships.”

We’re tucked away in one of the dressing areas of Marcelo’s shop. He’s up front speaking with a woman second-guessing her veil selection. Yesterday, whenever I wasn’t meeting clients or working on proposals, I was thinking about Andrew and Max’s untimely reappearance in my life. Focusing on Natalia’s wardrobe crisis—which, because it involves Natalia, requires nothing less than an “all brain cells on deck” mentality—is a welcome distraction.

Jaslene, who’s kneeling at Natalia’s feet, shakes out the bottom of my cousin’s dress and looks up at her. “Not true. You look like a princess.”

Natalia pins Jaslene with a dubious stare. “Yes. A Disney princess. Wearing ice skates and doing figure eights. Besides, you’re just saying it looks nice because I’m paying you both to help plan this wedding.”

“No, Grumpy Bear,” Jaslene counters. “I’m saying you look nice because it’s true.”

“Anyway,” Natalia says, a hand on her hip, “even if it’s true, this dress is going to give me nightmares. I can already picture one.” She drops her voice to a stage whisper. “I’m walking down the aisle and both Tim Gunn and Christian Siriano pop out from behind potted plants and tell me my gown needs editing.”

Now that’s a fair point. Because, whoo boy, there’s a lot going on here: tulle, lace, taffeta, and a scalloped bodice with intricate crystal appliqué. So. Many. Crystals. I’m tempted to sing Frozen’s “Let It Go” at the top of my lungs, but I don’t think Natalia would appreciate it. “May I make a suggestion?”

“If it’s a good one, yes,” Natalia says.

I ignore her sarcasm; it’s a survival mechanism where my cousin’s concerned. “What about a jumpsuit? It’s simple yet elegant. You’d be comfortable, too. And if you want a showstopping element, you can choose a design with a train.” I lean forward to make my final point. “Best of all, you could add P-O-C-K-E-T-S.”

“Don’t spell shit out this early in the morning, Lina. I can’t deal.”

I purse my lips at her. It’s eleven o’clock. “Pockets, bitch. Pockets.”

“Ooh, ooh,” Jaslene says, waving her hand. “I need that on a dress. With. Pockets.”

Natalia rolls her eyes and spins to face the mirror. Letting out a long-suffering sigh, she cocks her head to the side and studies her reflection. “Marcelo will be crushed, and I’d hate to hurt his feelings. He’s offering this to me for free. Just a slight alteration here and there and we’d be done.”

I stand and rest my chin on her shoulder. “This is your and Paolo’s wedding, not Marcelo’s. Do you love it?”

“No,” Natalia admits, returning my gaze through the mirror. “I actually dislike it very much.”

“And is that how you want to remember your wedding day?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “No, you’re right. And a jumpsuit would look badass. Totally in keeping with my personality. Plus, this might be the only time when a jumpsuit would be easier than a wedding dress to manage during a bathroom break.” She widens her eyes, and I see the first glimmer of excitement in them. “I’d be able to dance at the reception with no problem. Oh, I could use the Rainha da Bateria outfits at Carnaval as inspiration.”

“Let’s not get carried away,” I tell her. “You cannot have your ass out at the wedding.”

Thanks to the Dominican stylist who presses it each week, Jaslene’s shoulder-length hair swings through the air as she claps excitedly. “Purple assless chaps and a humongous headpiece would be perfect. You’d be channeling Prince and Carnaval.”

“Yes,” Natalia says, pumping her fists. She looks at me. “See? Jaslene gets it. That way, I could pay homage to my dual citizenship.”

“No,” I say. “I’m pretty sure that would violate the wedding venue’s health code.”

Natalia scoffs at me. “Whatever. My ass would get an A grade from any health inspector.”

Lord. If any bride needs to be reined in, it’s this one. Left to her own devices, she’d hire an entire samba school to precede her down the aisle—drummers, dancers, floats, and all. Now that I think about it, I wouldn’t put it past her to plan something like that as a surprise. I need to keep her on task. “Take a look online in the next day or two and see if anything catches your eye. I can make some inquiries at other bridal shops around town. There’s a reason you’re five weeks away from your wedding and you haven’t committed to a dress. It’s time to think outside the box.”

She nods thoughtfully. “Okay, you’ve persuaded me. I’ll look first thing when I get home tonight.” As Jaslene and I gather the accessories Natalia tried on, my cousin deals with the delicate task of removing the dress.

“Need help in there?” I ask.

“I think I got it,” she says through the louvered double door. “The zipper stitched in underneath the row of buttons is genius. I’d stab someone with a stiletto if I had to wrestle with these tiny buttons the morning of my wedding.”

Jaslene and I shake our heads, knowing Natalia’s only slightly exaggerating.

“Natalia, you can’t use your wedding as an excuse for everything,” I say. “Everyone knows you’d stab someone with a stiletto simply for existing.”

“Exactly,” she says from the changing room. “That’s why I’ve always hated the term bridezilla. For one thing, it’s sexist. Women under immense pressure who speak up for what they want? Monsters. But also, it erases part of my identity. My true friends know I’m like this all the time.”

Even though Natalia can’t see her, Jaslene hides her mouth and whispers to me, “It’s true.”

“So, your mom told my mom that you’re interviewing for a major position,” Natalia says. “What’s that about? And why didn’t you tell me?”

To be honest, I didn’t tell Natalia because she’s going to flip and I don’t want her to try to dissuade me. Not until it’s too late to be dissuaded, at least. I’m not sure what she’d do if she ever saw Andrew or Max again, but I suspect at some point the cops would be called.

“You still there?” Natalia asks.

“Yeah, I’m here. So the position could be a stellar opportunity. I’d be the wedding coordinator for the Cartwright Hotel Group.”

“Holy shit, Lina,” she says, opening the door and sticking her head out. “That’s fantastic. Congratulations.”

“I don’t have the job yet,” I say as I stack several shoeboxes on an accent table. “The interview process is involved.”

She pulls an arm through the sleeve of her top and pauses. “How hard could it be, though?”

I make the mistake of letting her question go unanswered a few seconds too long.

She glances at Jaslene’s face, then scans me from head to toe. “What aren’t you telling me, prima? There’s a catch, isn’t there?”

When she retreats inside the dressing room, I exhale and silently thank the Lord for the breather. It’ll be easier to disclose this if she’s not staring me down. My explanation comes out in a rush, Andrew’s and Max’s names dropped into the narrative like tiny breadcrumbs I’m hoping she doesn’t pick up. And when I’m done, the silence that follows surprises me. I look at Jaslene, who shakes out her hand as though I’m in trouble.

Before I can prod Natalia for a reaction, she bursts out of the dressing room like an Old West gunslinger making her presence known in the local saloon. “Tell me you’re going to make their lives a living hell.”

If the way people emoted were reflected on a scale of one to ten, most days, I’d be a three—four, tops. Jaslene’s a solid seven with level ten potential when she’s tipsy, an altered state that’s a thing to behold if you’re lucky enough to catch her in it. Natalia’s a ten—seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. And the easiest way to defuse my cousin’s outbursts is to speak in soft tones. It’s like calming a skittish horse. Just call me the Natalia Whisperer. “I hadn’t planned on exacting any retribution, no. I told Andrew he needs to steer clear of me, and even though Max and I are supposed to work together, I intend to handle the pitch myself. I mean, isn’t that what I already do for my own business?”

Natalia reaches behind her to grab the dress, which is now safely back in its garment bag, and hands it to me. “The universe is giving you the chance to right a few wrongs. Why on earth won’t you take it?”

Because I’m above such pettiness, that’s why. Or, more accurately, because I’m not well-versed in the art of pettiness and would never be able to do the discipline the justice it deserves. Plus, harping on old news suggests it has power over me, and it doesn’t. I don’t like Andrew and Max. I don’t want to work with them, either. But that doesn’t give me license to torture them. “Ladies, don’t think I haven’t imagined ways of luring Andrew into my very own Red Room of Unpleasant Pain, but when all is said and done, I’m a professional facing a threat to her business. Either I get this job or find an alternative location. And I only have five weeks. That must be my priority. Anything else is a distraction I don’t need.”

“Speaking as someone who stands to benefit from your mature take on the situation,” Jaslene says, “I should support this plan, but now I’m wondering if you need closure.”

I draw back and tilt my head. “Closure? With Andrew?”

Jaslene shakes her head. “No, you got that already. You need closure with Max.”

“And I think those resale designer shoes you insist on wearing even though they’re a size too small are cutting off the supply of oxygen to your brain.”

She playfully purses her lips at me. “Cute. Anyway, all I’m saying is, Max isn’t just some person you need to collaborate with. You have history. Unresolved feelings. Closure will help you address them. I suspect you’re going to need it if you want to work with him successfully.”

Jaslene’s so wrong about this, it’s cringeworthy. How could I possibly benefit from talking to Max about a day I’d prefer to forget? “Do you even know me at all, Jaslene? I’m not interested in rehashing what Max did and how it affected me.”

Jaslene grabs one of my hands and shakes it. “Silly goose, when I mentioned closure, I didn’t necessarily mean that you and Max needed to have some big cathartic talk about what happened.” She blows a raspberry. “I’m shocked to admit this, but I actually think Natalia’s on to something. Maybe the universe is giving you the chance to right some wrongs.” When I simply stare at her in silence, she adds, “Listen, there are different ways of getting closure, and one of those ways might be to make someone miserable for the sake of satisfying your petty soul.” She shrugs. “Just a thought.”

“Noted and dismissed,” I grumble. “I have a job to land and a business to run. Playing games is a luxury I can’t afford.”

Natalia rolls her eyes and neck as though she’s doing her best impression of a bobblehead. “I’m disappointed in you, Lina. Especially given what you do for a living. Haven’t you ever heard of multitasking? You can impress this Rebecca person and make the Brothers Karafuckoff suffer.”

I shake my head. “Dostoevsky, Natalia? Seriously?”

She pretends to brush off her shoulders. “What can I say? My dragging skills are multifaceted.” Her eyes are kind when she takes my hands. “Listen, if you need to stay within your comfort zone, that’s okay, too. Your way of reacting to a situation is just as valid as mine.”

“Just not as fun, right?” I ask with a smile.

She winks. “You said it, not me.” With a finger over her mouth, she gestures for us to leave the dressing area quietly. “I don’t want to tell Marcelo about the dress just yet. Not with an audience. He’s coming over to my mom’s tonight, so I’ll tell him then. Please cover for me.”

Jaslene and I link arms to create a human wall for Natalia, then we all tiptoe past the showroom and skulk out the door. We loiter outside, a few feet away from the shop’s entrance, beyond Marcelo’s line of sight.

As Natalia and Jaslene chat about the wedding timeline, I stare off into the distance, mentally urging myself to tell Natalia the full story. Before I can change my mind, I turn to her. “There’s one other thing I didn’t tell you.”

She raises a brow. “There’s more?”

“Yeah. So when I first saw Andrew and Max in the conference room at the Cartwright, I panicked and pretended not to know them. Rebecca has no clue Andrew broke our engagement, and there’s no going back, not if I want a shot at the job.”

“Shut. Up.” Natalia flails. “This is mind-blowing. You, Ms. Plan Everything Within an Inch of Its Life, orchestrated a sham of epic proportions and now you’ll be forced to see it through to its unpredictable end?” She makes a big show of looking around. “Where’s the popcorn and the Twizzlers? I can already picture this playing out on a big screen.”

“That’s what I said,” Jaslene adds. “Well, the part about the popcorn. I’d even plant my ass in a movie theater to see it. And you both know I don’t put on a bra and real clothes for just any ol’ film.”

“Look, I’m not proud of what I did,” I say, interrupting their musings, “but yeah, I’m going to see it through to the end. Maybe after Rebecca makes her decision, I’ll find a way to tell her. By then, I hope she’ll think it’s more important to have me as her wedding coordinator than to concern herself with my past relationships.”

Natalia worries her bottom lip as she studies me. “Hope may spring eternal, prima, but deception will bite you in the ass. You sure you know what you’re doing?”

“Hell, no,” I tell her. “I have absolutely no clue what I’m doing, but I’m not going to let that stop me. Andrew has every reason to keep up the ruse, and his brother’s just along for the ride. I know exactly how to handle someone like Max.”

Jaslene clears her throat and gives me scary googly eyes.

“Allergies again?” I ask her. “Ugh. My car was covered in pollen this morning.”

“Not exactly,” she says, coughing into her hand.

“Anyway, if I play my cards right,” I continue, “Max won’t figure into the process at all. He’s so clueless, I’ll be signing my employment papers before he realizes he was a nonfactor.”

Natalia tips her head up and sighs.

“What?”

She looks at a spot over my shoulder, her eyes narrowing into a death glare.

My breakfast somersaults in my belly, and a tingling sensation runs up my spine. “He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?”

“He is,” Max says, a tinge of humor in his voice.

Shit. Maybe my life should be a movie.





Chapter Seven

Max

Every opponent, no matter how worthy or skilled, has a weak spot. I can already guess Lina’s. She wants to control everything. When she doesn’t, her brain flounders, leaving her off-balance, agitated, and flustered enough to do absurd shit—like pretend not to know her ex-fiancé and his brother during an impromptu business meeting. By showing up here unannounced, I’m taking advantage of this vulnerability. Shameful, I know, but necessary nonetheless.

She spins to face me, her face contorted into an awkward wince. A slight wobble interrupts the fluidity of the move. Heh. My plan’s working.

I give her my best charming-as-hell smile. “Lina, it’s good to see you again.”

She treats me to a drop-dead-and-die grimace. “I wish I could say likewise, but I’d be lying if I did. What are you doing here, Mr. Hartley?”

If Lina thinks I’m going to get riled up when she snaps at me, she’s flat-out wrong. I’m an easygoing guy. It would take some monumental bullshit to set me off, and her snippiness doesn’t even come close to reaching that level. “It’s a public sidewalk, Ms. Santos. Would you believe I happened to be passing by just when you bad-mouthed me?”

A woman jumps in between us, looking up at me with venom in her eyes. “Don’t answer her question with a question, creep.” She takes off an earring, then another, whips out a hair tie, and pulls her long, curly honey-brown hair into a ponytail. She’s getting ready for something, and given the way she’s cracking her knuckles, I don’t think it’s a tea party.

“What do you want?” the irate woman asks.

I vaguely remember her. If memory serves, she rushed past me in the hall after Lina kicked me out of the bridal suite on her wedding day. Apparently, I’m on this woman’s shit list, too. I put up my hands. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. What’s all the hostility for? You’re not supposed to shoot the messenger, remember?”

“Messenger?” The woman sneers. “That’s rich. The person who convinced my cousin’s fiancé to cancel the wedding is an accomplice, not a messenger.”

My gaze darts to Lina’s face. Her mouth trembles, but I don’t even blink before she clears her face of any expression. Is that how she feels? Or am I just a douche by association? I wish she’d give me a peek inside her brain. It’s where all the action happens, and it must be fascinating in there.

“Look—” I point at the woman. “What’s your name again?”

“Natalia,” she says through gritted teeth. She jabs a thumb in the other woman’s direction. “And this is Jaslene.”

Jaslene shakes her head at me gravely. “Hey, Max.”

Huh. Jaslene doesn’t seem to hate me. Shocker. Maybe she’s a potential ally.

I turn back to the hostile one. “Look, Natalia, from what I overheard I gather you’re up to speed. Which means you also know Lina and I can’t avoid working together. I’m trying to make the best of an uneasy situation. So, do you mind if I talk to your cousin for a minute?”

She crosses her arms over her chest and shifts to the left. “Be my guest.”

“Alone, please?”

Natalia and Jaslene take several steps back but remain within arm’s reach.

“I stopped by to invite you to lunch today,” I say to Lina. “I think we should talk. Maybe clear the air and figure out a way forward? What do you say?”

Tilting her head, she widens her eyes and blinks like an owl on speed. “Clear the air? Why would we need to do that? We’re strangers, remember?”

Oh, we’re playing this game, are we? Fun. “Well, we’re strangers as long as I cooperate, remember? Rebecca’s just a phone call away.”

She straightens and glowers at me. “You. Wouldn’t.”

Dammit. She’s got me there. I shake my head. “No, I wouldn’t. But you know how in a movie when a group of teenagers does a bad thing, there’s always that one kid who cracks under pressure and confesses everything? That’s Andrew. If you and I don’t get our act together, he’s going to get scared and sing like a canary.”

She takes a small breath, her face pensive as she studies me. “We can clear the air right here.”

“Or we can clear the air over a nice lunch. Like adults.”

She leans over and rests her hands on her thighs, as if she’s addressing a small child. “Are you sure that wouldn’t put too much pressure on you to perform?”

Jesus. By the time Lina’s through with me, I won’t just be a shell of myself; no, I’ll be a mutated version that wears V-neck cashmere sweaters, relaxes in Adirondack chairs, and chortles when someone tells a joke.

“Nice,” Jaslene says.

Some ally she is.

Why am I subjecting myself to this abuse? I didn’t sign up for this. Okay, so maybe a tiny part of me is enjoying this snarky side of her, but that’s not the point here. If I don’t reassert myself, Andrew’s going to easily steer his planner to victory—and I can’t let that happen. Plus, I’m tired of being punished for someone else’s bad behavior. Andrew’s especially. Frowning, I squish my eyebrows together and pretend to be confused. “I think I might have missed the moment when I left you at the altar.” Then I rest a hand on my hip and tap my chin. “Oh, wait a minute. That was my brother. Sorry. I get us confused sometimes. You do too, apparently.”

Lina squints. Natalia growls. Jaslene gasps.

Oh fuck. That came out way harsher than I intended. Now I’m stranded on Gone-Too-Far Island, and these women are my only chance for a rescue. Before I can apologize, Jaslene pulls Lina away. They face each other, and Jaslene rests her hands on Lina’s shoulders, as though she’s coaching her through a personal crisis.

“Petty is as petty does,” Jaslene tells Lina, her voice urgent. “You can do this.”

Lina looks from Jaslene to Natalia, and the latter nods as though she’s the Godfather, silently putting a hit out on someone. What an odd trio.

Lina inhales, her chest rising high and proud, then she breathes out slowly. “Okay, Max. Where would you like to go?”

That’s it? She’s not going to flay me for that ill-advised outburst? I feel as though the Queen has granted me a reprieve. Well, I’m taking that reprieve and running with it. I still have five weeks to smooth over any bad feelings. “Your choice. Whatever you want.”

“How about the Grill from Ipanema?”

“In Adams Morgan? That’s right around where I live. Perfect.”

She nods. “Okay, I’ll meet you there in thirty minutes.”

I point at my illegally parked car. I’ll probably get a ticket if I’m not gone in the next minute. “I can give you a ride if you’d like.”

“Nah,” she says. “I need to run an errand first. I’ll meet you there.” She turns in the direction of her bodyguards while Jaslene pulls Natalia away by her shirtsleeve.

I take a few steps and freeze when I hear Lina call out my name. “Yeah?”

“I’m looking forward to it,” she says. “And I really appreciate the gesture.” Then she tucks a lock of hair behind her ear and smiles at me shyly.

Lina’s luminous as it is, but that smile transforms her face, as though she’s suddenly glowing from the inside. It’s not just breathtaking, it’s breath snatching. I inhale deeply—because I want my fucking air back. “Uh, yeah, I’m glad we’re doing this. See you soon.”

She nods and turns away.

I stand in a daze of my own making, cautiously optimistic about the quick progress we’ve made. Makes me realize I’ve been thinking about this all wrong. Interacting with Lina isn’t a battle. It’s more like making a great cocktail—a science I’ll be perfecting over time. Take a person who thinks they’re in control (Lina), add in someone bent on throwing them off-balance (me), and stir vigorously. It’s effervescence in a glass, an explosion of flavors on the tongue, and it leads to tiny breakthroughs like the one we just experienced. With a few more tweaks, we’ll be so good together someone will want to bottle our chemistry.

Platonic chemistry, of course.

Just, you know, chemistry between two people interacting on a professional level and working toward a common goal.

Dammit. I can’t unthink it. Now I’m the one flustered enough to do absurd shit—like wonder what would have happened if I’d met Lina before my brother did.

* * *

Lina and I have just ordered our meals—an appetizer, entrée, and dessert for her (says she prefers to choose her dessert and work backward from there), and an entrée for me.

So far, so good.

I sneak a glance at her face as she sips her drink, a cloudy concoction with lime and mint in it. She’s been disturbingly serene since we sat down, and I’m recalibrating how to engage with her now that she’s no longer throwing daggers with her eyes. “Let me start by congratulating you on a fantastic opportunity. You must have really dazzled Rebecca. She’s putting a lot into this search process.”

Lina settles an elbow on the table and stabs the ice in her glass with a swizzle stick. “I was wondering about that. Whether what she’s doing is atypical for a client trying to rebrand.”

Now, this is a step in the right direction. Lina’s engaging with me as though I’m just another colleague. As though she wants to give us a fresh start. And I intend to capitalize on her mellower demeanor. “It’s the first I’ve heard of anything like this. But I’m not surprised. Rebecca strikes me as the type of person who’s perfectly happy following her own approach. The good news is, what she’s asking for in terms of a pitch is very much in my wheelhouse, so I can help,