Road Trip With The Best Man

CHAPTER ONE

Dawn Featherington stared down the aisle at the perfect floral arrangements tied to each row of chairs set out on the grass. The string quartet was playing Pachelbel’s Canon—again—the officiant smiling serenely at the foot of the pagoda steps. The late-afternoon sun shone down on the manicured lawns of the Californian coastal mansion Justin’s mother had insisted would be the perfect venue for the two hundred and fifty guests they needed to invite, lighting up the delicate white ribbons and lace strung around the pagoda.

Everything looked perfect. Until she turned her attention to the expectant guests, all waiting slightly less patiently than they had been twenty minutes ago, and felt her stomach twist.

Because the only thing missing now was the groom.

Dawn ducked back behind the screens that the venue staff had put in place to keep the bridal party’s arrival a secret until the last moment. Behind her, her four sisters whispered amongst themselves, their rose-pink silk bridesmaid dresses rustling with them. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, but then she didn’t really need to.

Can you believe this is happening again?

No. They were wrong. Justin loved her, he wanted to marry her. He’d hated even having to spend last night in a different hotel—although he’d insisted they had to, for tradition’s sake. He’d be here any moment. Probably.

Dawn bit back a sigh. It wasn’t as if this exact thing had happened before, anyway—whatever her sisters were whispering. She’d never got quite as far as the altar with any of the others. They’d all called it off before it reached this point.

Two broken engagements—one at the rehearsal dinner, but that still wasn’t the actual altar, right?—three long-term cohabiting relationships that had never even got as far as the ring and now Justin. Forty minutes late for his own wedding.

It wouldn’t be quiteso bad if every single one of her boyfriends hadn’t gone on to marry someone else within twelve to eighteen months. Including, in one particularly soul-destroying case, marrying her own sister.

‘The Dry Run.’That was what her sisters called her. Dawn was the woman that guys tried out settling down with before they picked the woman they actuallywanted to spend the rest of their lives with. And for some reason that woman was never Dawn.

But Justin was different. Wasn’t he?

From the moment they’d first met, she’d felt it. She’d been at a work event, one held at an estate not unlike this one, with vineyards stretching back from the gleaming white house. She’d been standing on the terrace, looking out at the sunset, when he’d approached her and made some comment about the hosts that she could barely remember. All she had taken in was his smile and his charm. They’d talked all evening—well, okay, mostly he’d talked, but he had so many interesting things to say! Then, the next day, he’d sent flowers and a note to her office, asking her to meet him at some ridiculously exclusive bar across town.

She went, and the rest was history. They’d announced their engagement four months later and, now, here they were.

Or rather, here shewas. Justin’s whereabouts were still a mystery.

The whispering behind her grew louder and Dawn turned to see the best man, Justin’s older brother Cooper, striding across the lawn from the main house towards them. He wasn’t smiling. Then again, she hadn’t seen him smile yet in the twenty-four hours since they’d met, so that might not actually be a sign.

Dawn sucked in a breath and braced herself.

‘He’s not coming.’ Cooper stood a few feet away, his expression blank. As if he hadn’t just torn her whole world apart with three little words.

She’d suspected that Cooper didn’t like her since she’d first met him at the rehearsal dinner. But then, he’d never seemed particularly enthusiastic whenever Justin had talked to him on the phone either. And, really, what best man didn’t make the effort even to attend the engagement party?

‘Way to break it to her gently,’ her sister, Marie, said sharply. She wrapped an arm around Dawn’s shoulders as their other sisters made sympathetic cooing noises.

Dawn would probably have felt a lot more comforted if Marie hadn’t married her ex-boyfriend two years ago.

She could feel all the usual emotions swelling up inside her—the anger, the despair, the gaping emptiness—but she clamped down on them. No. This wasn’t going to happen again. It couldn’t.

And, if it did, she wasn’t going to give any one of her perfect sisters—or Justin’s sanctimonious brother—the chance to see it break her.

‘Is that for me?’ Dawn pointed to the envelope in Cooper’s hand, proud of how steady her voice was. Her finger didn’t even shake.

She could almost believe she wasn’t actually dying on the inside.

Cooper gave a short nod and handed it over—but not, she noticed, before removing a second envelope. One that had his name on it.

Apparently Justin had to say more than just to the bride he’d stood up.

Focusing on keeping her hand steady, she took her letter and untucked the envelope flap. So like Justin, to write an old-fashioned letter. He wasn’t the sort to dump a girl by text message—like her second fiancé—or even by email, like boyfriend number three. Justin was a gentleman.

Or he had been, until now.

Inside the envelope she found a single sheet of creamy paper covered in his block print writing —one that Dawn was pretty sure Justin must have taken from the elegant writing desk in his mother’s immaculate front room. She scanned the words quickly, then folded it up again and pushed it back into the envelope, making sure not to let her expression change at all.

They were not going to win.

‘Right. Well, it seems we won’t be having a wedding today after all.’ Her voice didn’t even sound like her own.

‘Oh, Dawn!’ That was her mother, of course, who’d come to find her father to see what the delay was. ‘Oh, not again, honey!’

Dawn kept her gaze fixed on Cooper’s face, even as he raised one eyebrow at the word ‘again’.

‘Will you help me tell the guests?’ she asked neutrally.

‘I believe that unfortunate task does fall to the best man, traditionally,’ Cooper said.

Traditionally. As if this happened at everyone else’s weddings, not just hers.

‘Great. Okay, then.’

‘Do you want me to send them home?’ Cooper asked, his voice as bland and unemotional as ever. ‘I believe there was a dinner planned…’

And an open bar, actually. That might be important later.

Dawn thought of the tables of canapés and champagne, the four-course meal that Justin’s family had insisted on paying for. There wouldn’t be any refunds at this point, of course, but it wasn’t as though the Edwards family couldn’t afford it. And a lot of these people had travelled a long way to be with them on their not-so-special day.

Well, the least she could do was feed them. And give them a good story to tell on the dinner-party circuit.

‘No,’ she said as firmly as she could manage. ‘I’ll go tell the venue to get the bar open and prepare to serve dinner. Everyone else should enjoy the day, at least. Excuse me.’

And with that Dawn hitched up her heavy, lace-covered skirt and made for the mansion as fast as she could in her satin heels.

She needed a drink, and a toilet cubicle to hide in, fast.

That way, no one would be able to see her fall apart.

Again.

*

Cooperwatched his brother’s jilted bride make her way towards the ridiculously fancy mansion she’d chosen for what was supposed to be her big day. She seemed strangely composed for someone who’d just had their entire future torn away from them.

Which, given the contents of the note Justin had left for him, probably shouldn’t have been such a surprise.

 

I can’t go through with it, Cooper. I’m sorry for all the upset this will cause Mother, but I know you’ll understand.

You see, this week I’ve found that I just can’t shake the feeling that Dawn has ulterior motives for wanting to marry me. I thought she loved me as much as I loved her. But now I’m worried she loves my money a lot more. I can’t face her—not now. I need some time away to think everything through, figure out the truth about our relationship, our feelings.

If I’m wrongI’ll make it up to hersomehow. But I can’t marry her when I’m not one hundred percent sure that it’s the right thing to do.

I’m heading up to the beach house for the week to think. I’m sorry to place this on you, brother, but I knew you would be the only one to understand exactly what I’m going through…

 

Yeah, Cooper understood. Apparently neither Edwards brother was any good at spotting a gold-digger until it was too late.

At least Justin had got out before he reached the altar, which was more than Cooper had managed.

Justin had done the right thing. Even if it kind of screwed up Cooper’s plans for kicking back, getting hammered on high quality whisky and maybe even seducing an attractive guest to help him forget how much he hated weddings. Traditionally, he supposed he should have lined up a bridesmaid, but since they all appeared to be A: married and B: sisters of the bride, he was happy to spurn tradition on this one.

Although maybe his plan, such as it was, wasn’t completely ruined—especially since Dawn intended to let the celebratory part of the day go ahead despite not having anything to celebrate.

He just needed to break the news to the dearly beloveds gathered for the non-event.

Couldn’t be any harder than facing his father’s shareholders after that debacle with Melanie and the Reed takeover, right? Or telling his parents that he’d been conned by the woman he loved and they were all about to get screwed in the divorce courts.

Yeah, this was nothing.

Cooper took a deep breath and walked down the aisle, thankfully alone.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, I have some sad news for you all.’ Everyone’s attention was instantly on him, of course, and Cooper smiled his best reassuring smile. ‘I’m afraid that there will not, after all, be a wedding here today.’ The expected whispers and groans went up from the crowd. Cooper knew better than to expect real disappointment from any of them. More likely they were mentally preparing their gloating renditions of this story for anyone unfortunate enough not to be there to witness it. Goodness knew there’d been enough stories told about him after his divorce, not all of them even close to the truth.

Not that he cared. What difference did it make to him what people said about him anyway?

But he didn’t want them saying that stuff about Justin.

‘The bride has requested that you all still stay for dinner, however,’ he added, and a more enthusiastic murmur went up at that. ‘And I believe the bar will be open imminently.’

Then he stepped out of the way to avoid the stampede.

‘Cooper? What’s happening? Dawn’s parents are in pieces over there, and her sisters…well. Where’s Justin?’ A dark-haired woman in a too-short pink dress pushed through the crush to get to him. Cooper frowned at her for a moment before recognising her as someone he’d been introduced to at the rehearsal dinner two nights before. Not a bridesmaid, so not one of Dawn’s numerous sisters. American, so not Dawn’s family, either—apart from her mother’s transatlantic twang, they all had the same regional British accent that she did. A friend, then. There hadn’t been many of those at the dinner—it had mostly been family. So she had to be… No, he had nothing.

‘I’m sorry, have we met?’ He smiled his most charming smile, but received only a scowl in return.

‘Yes. Last night. I’m Dawn’s friend, Ruby.’

‘Right. Ruby. Of course.’ Yeah, no way was he going to remember that more than a few minutes this time, either. Why waste time on people who weren’t going to matter to him in the future? And, since Dawn was no longer going to be his sister-in-law, he didn’t need to worry about it.

‘So? Where’s Justin? Where’s Dawn, come to that?’

‘Last I saw, Dawn was heading into the venue to demand they open the bar early,’ he replied. ‘And Justin… I can’t say exactly where he is. But I know he’s not coming.’ And if for some reason his brother lost his mind and suddenly appeared to try and make up with his bride—if he decided that his love would be enough for both of them, even if Dawn’s had never existed—well. Then Cooper would be there to stop him. To keep them apart until Justin came to his senses again and appreciated his lucky escape.

‘The bar?’ Ruby shook her head, turned on her heel and stalked away from him towards her gold-digging friend—stopping briefly to talk to Dawn’s confused parents on her way. Maybe they’d been in on it together, he thought absently. Well, Dawn might not be a heartbroken jilted bride, but if nothing else she had to be bitterly lamenting the loss of all that money. The thought made him smile.

Love, Cooper knew from bitter experience, could make a man act crazy. Justin had done the right thing, and Cooper would make sure he kept doing it.

There was no way he was going to let his little brother make the same awful mistakes he had.

*

Dawnhad found the perfect hiding spot: in the ladies’ room on the second floor, furthest from the bar. There were at least two other bathrooms between there and the ballroom where the not-wedding breakfast would be served, and Dawn couldn’t imagine anyone traipsing this far away from the complimentary alcohol if they didn’t have to.

She was completely alone, just as she needed to be.

‘Dawn?’

Completely alone except for Ruby, that was.

‘In here,’ she said, unlocking the door with a sigh. Ruby, she’d learned over the last couple of years since they’d become friends, never took silence for an answer.

Ruby bustled into the bathroom, slamming the door shut behind her and handing over the bottle of Prosecco she was holding.

‘Okay, can someone please explain to me what the hell is going on? Because that idiot of a best man was basically useless.’

Reaching into the tiny clutch bag she’d retrieved from her sister Elizabeth on her way back to the mansion, Dawn pulled out the letter from Justin and gave it to Ruby. It wasn’t as if she needed to read it again, anyway. The words were already burned into her brain.

 

Dearest Dawn,

I’m so sorry to do this to you, darling, but I know I have to be fair to both of us, to give us both our best chances at a happy future.

I can’t be there to marry you today. Please don’t ask me why, simply know that when I asked you to be my bride it was because I truly believed that our futures lay together. But the world changes more quicklythan we can sometimes imagine.

Cooper will help you with our guests, and explain everything to myparents.

Once again, I’m so sorry, Dawn.

With love and affection,

Justin

 

Dawn watched as Ruby read the letter, her eyebrows jerking higher with every line. Yeah, that was my reaction too. Well, that and her heart cracking in two.

Time to open the Prosecco.

‘So, he can’t tell you why he didn’t show up, he ditched the whole problem onto his idiot brother and still claims he’s being fair to you?’ Ruby sounded incredulous.

‘Yes, apparently I have been jilted at the altar for my own good.’ Dawn took a swig from the bottle and passed it back to Ruby. ‘At least that’s an excuse I haven’t heard before. I mean, with Richard it was because he realised he wasn’t ready to settle down after all—although he did settle down six months later with a redhead he met on his “finding myself” trip around India, incidentally. Harry decided he was gay, after he’d been living with me for three months.’

Ruby stifled a giggle at that. Dawn ignored her and carried on ticking off her disastrous prior relationships on her fingers.

‘Patrick left me for a job in Dubai, where he claimed I’d be desperately unhappy so he couldn’t ask me to go with him. Ewan cheated on me with his ex-girlfriend and Trevor married my sister instead.’

‘Girl, you have the worst luck with men. You should try women instead.’

‘Don’t think I haven’t considered it.’ Dawn sighed. ‘I just… I don’t understand what’s wrong withme.’

‘Nothing is wrong with you,’ Ruby said fiercely. ‘Trust me, it’s those men who are the fools here.’

‘Except every one of them managed to settle down with someone else after they got shot of me,’ Dawn pointed out. ‘And now Justin… I mean, he just didn’t even bother to show up. And he can’t tell me why. That’s…it’s not enough.’

‘You need closure,’ Ruby said sagely, returning the bottle of Prosecco to her.

Closure. That sounded good. Closing the book on her absurdly cursed love life and moving forward instead. Understanding the mistakes she’d made, or what it was about her that made finding her happy-ever-after so impossible. Because this? This wasn’t what all those fairy tales and happy endings had led her to expect from life. And she wanted better for her future.

She wanted to find someone to share her life with. Someone who’d stick by her through the ups and downs, someone to come home to after a hard day at work, someone to love her just as she was.

Really, how hard could it be if all four of her sisters had managed it? Not to mention every cousin, friend and family acquaintance she had, except for Ruby. Dawn had attended so many weddings in the last ten years, they’d all started to merge into one.

And now it had been her turn at last and everyone had been so happy for her. And relieved, she knew—her family wasn’t good at hiding their emotions that way. They’d been relieved that at last Dawn was through that terrible run of bad luck and they could all stop worrying about her and get back to being blissfully happy themselves.

Except now it was all ruined.

‘Your parents were looking for you,’ Ruby said, her voice softer. ‘And your sisters. Plus, well, everyone you’ve ever met.’

Yet Ruby was the only one who’d actually managed to find her. Not that Dawn was particularly surprised by that. Ruby knew her—had seen right through her the first day they’d met and declared that they were destined to be best friends. And so they were.

‘I don’t want to see them.’ She loved her family, really she did. And she knew they loved her. But she couldn’t take the pity in their eyes one more time. That disappointment and—worse—that sense of inevitability. And she really didn’t want to hear her mother’s, ‘Not every woman is meant to be a wife and mother, Dawnie,’ speech. Because she knew that—of course she did. And if she’d chosen to be alone, to forge her own path through life, that would be great. But she hadn’t.

Six times now, she’d thought she’d found true love. She’d thought she’d found forever.

And six times she’d been wrong.

She took another, longer gulp of Prosecco, the bubbles stinging her throat as they went down.

Maybe her mother was right. Maybe it was time to concede defeat. To dedicate her life to being that crazy aunt who was always off on adventures, posting photos of her in exotic places with handsome men she never stayed with long enough for them to let her down.

It wouldn’t be a bad life.

‘What do you want me to do?’ Ruby asked. ‘Just say it, and I’ll make it happen.’

Ruby, Dawn decided, was the best friend a girl had ever had. Life would be so much easier if she could just fall in love with Ruby. Well, as long as Ruby loved her back, which wasn’t at all a sure thing. She wasn’t exactly Ruby’s type—she preferred blondes who played guitar, if her last three girlfriends were anything to go by. So, no, even Ruby couldn’t be her happy-ever-after. Not in a romantic way, anyway.

But she was still the best friend ever.

‘I need to get out of here,’ Dawn said. ‘I need to figure out what happened. What I do next. I don’t want anyone to worry about me or anything but I can’t stay here. I need to go find…closure.’

Ruby gave a sharp nod. ‘Closure it is. Give me five minutes. And finish that bottle while you’re waiting.’

 

 

From ‘Road Trip With The Best Man’ 

Published June 2018

Copyright Sophie Pembroke