We’re a little bit outside of the city now. “I still don’t know how you booked the Château de Fontainebleau,” I tell him, stunned.
Connor wraps an arm over my shoulders and leans into my ear. “I have my ways.”
Connor and his ways. “You mean your connections,” I clarify.
“Those, yes,” he smiles.
I check the time on my cell again, and he slips it right out of my hand. I ignore his tactics to calm my nerves, and I hike up my bright pink bridesmaid dress to climb to the seat closest to the driver. “Excuse me,” I say in clipped words. “Could you drive just a little faster? We’re running behind.”
“We’re thirty minutes early,” Connor reminds me, his smile only widening.
“And I wanted to be an hour early,” I snap at him. “But someone spent fifteen minutes just choosing cufflinks. I don’t think Loren really cares that you put on your…” I glance at his wrists. “Are those real gold?”
His grin lifts to his eyes, which only makes me roll mine. And then I catch a peek out the window and my stomach dives. What the…fuck!
I grab at my dress again, bunching the pink fabric in my hand so that I don’t rip it. I move to the window and practically stick my entire head out like a dog. Not the most unladylike thing I’ve done. But it’s close. Connor’s hands land on my h*ps and pull me back in.
“There are cameras in the sky,” he says.
“And there are roses on the path!” I scream, my eyes bugged. “You changed the flowers to roses?!” Lily is going to kill me. This is so, so, so wrong. I chose orchids. Neutral flower territory.
Connor’s eyebrows furrow in confusion, and he follows my frantic gaze. “That must have been a mistake.” He turns back to me and cups my cheeks. “Breathe. I’m going to text the wedding coordinator and have them change it.”
“You’re the wedding coordinator,” I refute.
He grins again.
“Hun, I’m the wedding delegator. I have one wedding planner and ten wedding coordinators at my disposal, which really are just glorified assistants.”
Of course he would delegate all of his duties. Now I’m really nervous. He has put trust into other people, whereas I’d rather kill myself by trying to do it alone. Check your pride, Rose. Right, my pride is not f**king up anything today. I go to look at what else has been ruined, but he keeps his hands on my shoulders, forcing me to stay.
“This is going to be a long day. I want you beside me, not crawling out of a window,” he tells me. “What do you say? You accept this challenge, Rose Calloway?”
I nod, willing to feed into his plans to calm my nerves.
Just this once.
* * *
“Where is everyone?!” My heels clap down the empty corridor that echoes. No one is here. I don’t understand. No Lily or Loren. No Ryke or Daisy. No guests or parents. I’m not stupid. It’s clear that Connor changed the time of the wedding.
“What’d you push it back to?”
“Four,” he says. “You wanted to be early.”
“Not three hours early.” Is he crazy?
I put my hands on my hips, but he sets his palm on the small of my back and leads me in a new direction.
“Where are we going?”
“I need to call Lily. I need to find her and make sure she’s not hyperventilating.”
“I’m sure she’s on the precipice of a mental breakdown,” I ignore his comment. “It’s my duty as the maid of honor to calm her.”
“Has anyone ever told you to stop and smell the roses?” he asks with an edging smile.
I roll my eyes. “Ha ha,” I say. “I’ve heard them all, believe me—” I’m distracted as soon as my heels sink into the manicured lawn. And then I look up and I become rooted to the earth. Connor waits by my side, his hand never leaving my back.
Cream, pink and red roses cascade along hedges, filling the gardens. But it’s not the gorgeous flowers that have me overflowing with emotion.
In the open courtyard stands Lily, Daisy and Poppy, wearing pale pink bridesmaids’ dresses, simple and light, unlike the one I’m smothered in. Almost like something I used to wear at ballet recitals.
“I don’t…” I shake my head as I take in their bright, glowing features. Lily is crying. And smiling.
Then I see Poppy’s husband and Ryke and Loren, all in tuxes, dapper and handsome. And then…
My mom wipes a couple tears as she smiles. She has her hands to her chest, choked with emotion, her pearls gone for the day. I almost start crying at the sight. My father stands by her side with an equally heartfelt reaction towards me.
Connor gently leads me closer to them.
I add together all the pieces and I shake my head quickly. “Connor, Connor we can’t hijack my sister’s wedding.”
“I didn’t,” Connor says.
“We gave it to him a month ago,” Loren explains with a growing smile.
“What?” I look between all of them, incensed that they kept a secret from me at first, but then I absorb each face, each family member and friend.
Everyone is happy.
I imagined today as a brutal one. Yelling. Screaming. Tugging Lily down the aisle, praying both her and Loren would say yes. “But…” I stammer as I glance at both my mother and father. I haven’t processed what’s happening to me yet. “…Lily’s inheritance. You said she couldn’t get it back until she married Loren.”
“We’re still engaged,” Lily says, she sidles next to Loren and he wraps an arm around her waist. “We’re just waiting to get married like we wanted to.”
“And it’s okay,” my dad says with a nod. “We’re not making their marriage a stipulation to anything. They can do that on their own time.”
I look to my mother. She reaches to her collar where her pearls would sit, but without them present, she touches the hollowness of her bone. It’s her only tell, her only giveaway that she may not be one-hundred percent satisfied with this outcome for my sister. But her lips stay pressed in a thin line, not arguing. She’s accepting it now, and that’s a start. The reality show did repair more of Lily’s image than this wedding could have. People were given six months of footage to fall in love with her and Loren instead of a dozen pictures.
“It’s okay,” Lily says again. “This day is yours.”
“What?” My voice is lost to shock.
Connor takes my hand, and I face him. It’s quiet. The only noise from the fountain beside us and the birds flapping in the sky. The helicopters sound far away from the courtyard, like little insects in the distance.
“Rose,” Connor breathes. And then he drops to one knee. He takes the black box from his pocket and flips it open. “Will you spend the rest of your life with me?”
I don’t even look at the diamond. “Yes,” I say, not hesitating, not thinking. I just say the one word that makes the most sense because my heart tells me so. I’m in such a fog that I only realize he’s standing and kissing me when everyone claps around us.
I smile and hold onto his face, not wanting my lips to part from his yet.
He grins into the kiss.
I’m getting married.
Holy shit. He breaks apart, and Daisy approaches me first with a dress box. She opens it, and I see the gown I sewed folded neatly underneath plastic wrapping. “We had the bust altered so you’d fit in it and not Lily,” she admits. “I stole the gown from your closet.”
I run my fingers over the plastic. I designed my own wedding dress. I smile. The dress I know I’ll love. The material is delicate, as thin as a ballet recital outfit that’ll reach my collarbone, how I like my clothes. Connor, I realize, found better bridesmaids gowns to match what I had created for Lily.
“It’s perfect,” I say. I glance back at Connor and I shake my head. “I can’t believe you did all of this for me.”
“I know what you love,” he says, “I was happy to make this day ours.”
I breathe out slowly so I don’t start crying all over again. My sisters begin to trickle inside to get ready for the wedding…my wedding. Loren and Ryke follow suit. With Poppy’s husband and my father in tow.
Connor and my mother are the only two who linger in the courtyard.
My mother takes my hands in hers. “Rose,” she says with glassy eyes. “I love you, and I never thought you’d get married…”
I can’t help but laugh because I never thought I would either.
“So this day is a dream for me as much as I know it is for you.”
I’ll take it. “Thank you,” I say, kissing her cheek. She kisses mine back.
“I’ll see you inside.” She pats Connor’s arm before she disappears into the palace.
Connor tilts his head, and he wears that arrogant, conceited smile I know so well. He edges forward and wraps his arms around my waist. “I love you,” he says. I love you.
The words fill me more than anything else. His lips touch my forehead, and he holds me so close, and I sway with him a little, as though we’re dancing at our reception. As though we’ve already said I do.
“One day,” he breathes, “we’re going to look back and recount all that we’ve done together. And we’re going to think, goddamn we were only twenty-four.”
My eyes well. “We’re the responsible pair.”
“The ones who clean everyone’s messes.”
“The ones everyone turns to,” I add.
“The most adult, even though we’re fairly new at this.”
I laugh into a tearful smile. This is about to happen. We’re going to be together. It feels like the start of a lifetime. Any fears I ever had, any reservations, are gone. I trust that he’ll stay here, for me.
That I am more than just a chase.
“Kiss the sky with me,” Connor whispers, a beautiful smile pulling his lips, “and don’t ever come down.”
[ Epilogue ]
Three Months Later
Hot, blinding spotlights bear down on me, my hands on either side of a glass podium. Three-hundred faces stare back. And I can’t see a single one. It’s like being supine on a hospital table, gazing at white fluorescents with no recognition of what lies beyond.
I’m not nervous. My palms aren’t clammy. The only sweat that beads my forehead derive from these lights.
The Cobalt Inc. logo rotates on a screen behind me, subsidiary names like MagNetic printed beneath. I already talked about my mother. How she had a vision for this company, the typical things everyone would expect to hear after the CEO passed, leaving her son everything.
I step out of the podium, in a suit that embodies my confidence.
One day, I’m at Penn, sitting in the front of class and turning in assignments about managerial theories. And in a flash of time, I’m here. Twenty-four-years-old. Addressing men and women twice my age about Cobalt Inc.’s newest undertaking, with no one else commanding the stage but me.
I smile, not able to see a thing. And I don’t even care. “Galileo said, ‘All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered,’” I tell the crowd. “‘The point is to discover them.’” The only one who would know how apropos that is to my life would be the girl in the very first row.
“Today, I’m going to tell you two truths.”
I walk towards the edge of the stage with certainty.
“I know women,” I say, which causes a wave of chuckling. The sex tapes are public knowledge by now. And instead of shying away from the publicity, both Rose and I have taken advantage of it—as business students would.
“And I know diamonds.” My lips rise even higher.
The Cobalt Inc. logo fades behind me.
Cobalt Diamonds replaces it.
Everyone claps, more loudly as they read the tagline: If there’s anything we know, it’s women and diamonds.
The industry my mother built was always meant to interconnect to others. Magnets, paints, gemstones—we could have started a jewelry franchise years ago, but Cobalt wasn’t a well-known name before the reality show, and we would have had to buyout another company, something we didn’t want to do.
The sex tapes have immortalized me as something far greater than I am—a dominant god that can fulfill a woman’s every fantasy—and belief has more power than anything I can ever construct myself.
It’s given a face to my mother’s company and a much bigger future.
I tell the crowd that our Director of Advertising will discuss marketing strategies. I thank them, and instead of heading backstage, I walk down the stairs to the convention floor.
My eyes adjust slowly to the darkness, but the cheering has suddenly escalated. And when I blink a few times, I realize that everyone is on their feet.