“Wait, was I supposed to bring a gift?”
I turn my gaze from the floor to the well-dressed man standing beside me. There are only two of us in the elevator, so he must be talking to me.
“I think it’s a matter of personal preference,” I answer. “I’m the maid of honor so I had to be excessive.”
His eyebrows bob up as I adjust my grip on the Great-Dane-sized gift basket I’m carrying. The cellophane wrapping paper crinkles each time I move, echoing through the confined space just loudly enough to keep things weird. Because if everyone isn’t uncomfortable for the entire ride, are you even really in an elevator?
I’m low-key ecstatic when the doors glide open ten seconds later. With my basket now on the cusp of breaking both my arms and my spirit, I beeline it out of there and stride into the rooftop lounge where my best friend is hosting her pre-wedding party, drinking in the scent of heat and champagne as I maneuver through the sea of guests.
Like most maids-of-honor, I flung myself down the Etsy rabbit hole headfirst and ordered an obscene amount of decorations for tonight’s event. Burlap “Mr. & Mrs.” banners dangle from floating shelves behind the bar as twinkle lights weave around the balcony railings like ivy. Lace-trimmed mason jars filled with pink roses sit on every candlelit cocktail table. Cristina and I worked with the tenacity of two matrimonial Spartans to get everything ready this morning, and it’s clear that our blood, sweat and tears were very much worth it.
It’s then that I spot Cristina mingling near the end of the bar. Beautiful, petite and come-hither curvy, I’d hate her if she weren’t one of my favorite people ever. Her caramel hair spills down her back and her white high-low dress sets her apart from the crowd in just the right way—she’s a princess in the forest and we’re her adoring woodland animals. I’m her feisty chipmunk sidekick to my core.
I place my gift on a nearby receiving table and give a little wave when I catch her eye. She’s waiting for me with a huge grin when I arrive at her side.
“Hey, lady!” she says, pulling me in for a hug. “Look at you, rolling in here looking all gorgeous.”
We step apart and I stand up a bit taller. “Why, thank you. I feel pretty good.”
It’s also very possible that Cristina is just so used to me dazzling the world with yoga pants and sweaters every day that my transformation seems more dramatic than it is.
“Were you able to get any writing done this afternoon?” she asks, handing me a glass of champagne from off the mahogany bar top.
I get a twisting knot in my gut at the mention of my writing, or lack thereof. Having been dying a slow literary death for almost a year, I’m never without some stomach-turning sensation for long. The final deadline for my next romance novel is officially a month away and if I don’t deliver a bestseller by then—
“Okay, you’re making your freak-out face,” Cristina interjects. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
I inhale a shallow breath and force a smile. “It’s fine. I’m good.”
“Let’s switch gears—are you sure it’s not weird that I’m having a pre-wedding party? Was booking the salsa band too much since I’m having one at the wedding, too?”
Beyond grateful for the booming trumpet and bongos that are drowning out my own thoughts, I turn to the corner and find the ten-piece group playing with addictive abandon. Cristina’s relatives, who are essentially non-trained professional salsa dancers, dominate the dance floor, and rightfully so. Cristina’s brother, Edgar, once tried to teach me the basics but I’m fairly confident I looked like a plank of wood that was given the gift of limbs. Cristina recommended dance lessons. Edgar suggested a bottle of aguardiente and prayer.
“The band is amazing,” I say as I swing back around, “and of course people have pre-wedding parties.” I’ve actually never heard of a pre-wedding party. An engagement party, yes. A bachelorette party, absolutely. But what’s going down tonight is basically a casual reception days before the mega-reception.
“Jason and I just have so many people coming in from out of town, plus we wanted the bridal party to get acquainted. We figured a little get-together would be fun.”
“I’m all for it. Who doesn’t want to pre-game for a wedding a week in advance?”
“I know I do,” Cristina says, lifting her own champagne and taking a sip. “Everyone is here except Jason and some groomsmen. Can you believe that creep is late to his own party?”
“Should you really be calling your fiancé a creep?”
“He’s my creep so it’s okay.”
“Picture please! Will you girls get together?”
I look to my right and find a teenage boy with wildly curly hair pointing a camera at us. He’s dressed in all black and looks so eager to take our photo that I can’t help but to find him endearing.
“Absolutely! Big smile, Kara.” Cristina throws her arm around my waist and after we withstand an intense flash, the young man is gone before my eyes can readjust. “That was Jason’s cousin, Rob. He wants to be a photographer, so I hired him for the night.”
“That was thoughtful of you,” I say, still recovering from my momentary blindness. “By the way, where is Jason?”
“He’s still at home. Two of his groomsmen are driving up and he wanted to wait for them since, apparently, grown men can’t find their way to a party by themselves.”
“Driving in Manhattan is intimidating. He probably didn’t want them to get lost.”
“Right, because neither of them has GPS? Jason should be here.”
I’m honestly shocked that Jason isn’t here. I love Cristina and Jason both to death but they’re one of those couples that rarely go out socially without each other. Even when I invite Cristina over to my apartment for a wine night, she asks to bring Jason. I’ve always thought it was a bit much, but I guess it works for them.
“Okay, forget everyone else, let’s toast.” I clear my throat and hold up my champagne. “When we were both waitressing at McMahon’s Pub in grad school, I had no idea it would lead to nine amazing years of friendship. Now I’d be lost without you. Here’s to you having a magical night. I’m so glad I’m here to celebrate with you.”
We smile and tap our glasses together, the ding of the crystal echoing my words.
I take a sip and the bubbly drink slips easily down my throat. Still savoring the sweetness, I ask, “So, who are these mystery groomsmen Jason’s waiting for?”
“One is named Beau and I can’t remember the other one. They’re two guys he grew up with when his family lived in North Carolina.”
“North Carolina? I thought Jason was from Texas?”
“He spent most of his life in Texas, but he lived in North Carolina until he was ten. He somehow kept in contact with these two through the years.”
“That’s nice, him staying friends with them for so long.”
“Yeah, it’s adorable, but they still should have gotten their asses here on their own.” Cristina is poised to elaborate when her gaze locks on something across the room. She tries and fails to look annoyed instead of excited.
“I’m guessing the groom has arrived,” I say, glancing over my shoulder. My suspicions are confirmed as I see Jason making his way toward us, smiling at Cristina like a fifth grader saying “cheese” on picture day. He’s tilting his head and everything.
“There she is! There’s my incredibly forgiving future wife.” Jason leans down and kisses Cristina before she can verbally obliterate him. He gives me a quick kiss on the cheek next and then shifts back to his fiancée’s side, sneaking an arm around her waist and pulling her to his hip.
“So, I’m going to go ahead and disregard all the semi-violent text messages you’ve sent me over the past hour. Bearing that in mind, how’s everything going?”
Cristina looks up at him, feigning disinterest. “It’s going great. Since you weren’t here, I talked to several nice men. Turns out, pre-wedding parties are a great place to meet guys.”
“I’m so happy for you.”
“I appreciate that. Four contenders, specifically, really piqued my interest.”
“Are they taller than me?” Jason asks. “Do they make a lot of money?”
“Obviously. They’re way taller and all of them are independently wealthy.”
“Nice. Kara, did you meet these freakishly tall and rich men?”
“I did and spoiler alert, I’m engaged now, too! Double wedding here we come!”
Jason smiles and pulls Cristina in even closer, his gaze holding hers. “I guess this is where being late gets you. I’m sorry I wasn’t here. Do you forgive me?”
“Don’t I always?”
He leans down and gives her another picture-perfect kiss.
It’s official. I’m dying alone. Just putting that out there.
“Now, where are these friends of yours? Oh! Let’s set one of them up with Kara!” Cristina looks at me with a dangerous matchmaker gleam in her eyes.
“Actually, I already mentioned Kara, and one of my buddies said he went to college with her.”
Went to college with me?
Jason looks towards the entrance and waves. “Hey, Ryan! Come over here!”
And then I go catatonic. I can’t move. I stand stock still, looking at Cristina like she sprouted a third arm out of her forehead and it’s giving me the middle finger.
Someone walks past me and a soft breeze ghosts across my overheating skin. I stare in a state of utter disbelief as Ryan Thompson steps into view beside Jason.
“It’s been a while, Sullivan,” he says, his voice as steady and tempting as ever.
My champagne glass falls from my fingers and shatters against the floor.
“Kara?” Cristina’s voice rings with concern as she nudges us away from the broken glass that’s now littered around our feet. She grasps my elbow, but I don’t feel it. She could backhand me across the face with a polo mallet and I wouldn’t feel it. My mind is spiraling, plummeting inwards as I come to grips with the realization that Ryan is standing two feet away from me.
Dressed in a navy suit, a crisp white button-down and brown dress shoes, he’s come a long way from the sweatshirts and jeans that were his unofficial uniform in college. His dirty-blond hair is on the shorter side, but a few wayward strands still fall across his forehead. Ten years ago, I would have reached up and brushed them aside without a thought. Now, my hand curls into a tight, unforgiving fist at my side.
If we were another former couple, seeing each other for the first time in a decade might be a dreamy, serendipitous meet-cute—a Nancy Meyers movie in pre-production. We’d have a few drinks and spend hours reminiscing about old times before picking up right where we left off. It would be comfortable and familiar as anything, like a sip of hot chocolate at Christmas with Nat King Cole crooning on vinyl in the background.
But we are not that kind of former couple, and I’m convinced that if Nat King Cole were here and knew my side of the story, he would grab Ryan by the scruff of his shirt and hold him steady as I roundhouse-kicked him in the throat.
It’s a tough pill to swallow but Ryan looks good. Like, really good. His face is harder than it was when he was twenty-one and the stubble on his chin tells me he hasn’t shaved in a few days, making him seem like he just rolled out of bed. And not rolled out of bed in a dirty way, but in a “I just rolled out of bed and yet I still look ruggedly handsome and you fully want to make out with me” kind of way.
“Ryan,” Cristina says, always the first to jump in, “Jason mentioned that you and Kara went to college together.”
“We did.” His eyes don’t move from mine for even a second. “It’s got to be what, ten years now?”
“Yeah, it’s been a long, long time,” I say quickly, turning to face Cristina. “I think I may have mentioned him before. Remember my friend from North Carolina?”
If someone were to look up “my friend from North Carolina” in the Dictionary of Kara, they would find the following:
My friend from North Carolina (noun): 1. Ryan Thompson. 2. My college boyfriend. 3. My first real boyfriend ever. 4. My first love. 5. Taker of my virginity. 6. Guy who massacred my heart with a rusty sledgehammer and fed the remains to rabid, ravenous dogs.
Cristina is well versed in the dictionary of Kara and recognition washes over her. “No way,” she says, her voice dropping.
“Yes way,” I answer happily, overcompensating.
Now’s it’s Cristina’s turn to panic. “Wow. Okay, wow, what a small world, huh?” She grabs Jason’s hand in an iron grip, making him wince as she blasts an over-the-top smile. “Well, we should give you guys a chance to catch up. My abuelita just got here so Jason and I are going to say hello.”
“Your abuelita died two years ago,” I hiss.
“I know, it’s a miracle. See you two later!” She drags her soon-to-be husband away before he can get a word out.
I watch them go, sailing away like the last lifeboat as I stand on deck with the string quartet, the cheerful Bach melody only further confirming that this ship is going down.
Excerpted from Talk Bookish to Me by Kate Bromley, Copyright © 2021 by Kate Bromley
Published by Graydon House Books.
TALK BOOKISH TO ME
Author: Kate Bromley
Publication Date: May 25, 2021
Publisher: Graydon House Books
KATE BROMLEY lives in New York City with her husband, son, and her somewhat excessive collection of romance novels (It’s not hoarding if it’s books, right?). She was a preschool teacher for seven years and is now focusing full-time on combining her two great passions – writing swoon-worthy love stories and making people laugh. Talk Bookish to Me is her first novel.