About the Author
Alice Clayton worked in the cosmetics industry for over a decade before picking up a pen (read: laptop). She enjoys gardening but not weeding, baking but not cleaning up, and finally convinced her long-time boyfriend to marry her. And she finally got her Bernese Mountain Dog.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Mai Tai’d Up chapter one
Four weeks later in San Diego
“And so tonight, I raise a glass to the most beautiful girl in the world—my daughter, Chloe Patterson. And to her intended, I say: take care of her. Because I know people.”
I could feel my blush rise as my father toasted me and my fiancé—the “intended” he’d just threatened in front of the fifty people attending our rehearsal dinner. Threatened in a perfectly acceptable way, of course, like a father of the bride would tease the man who’s going to take away his little girl forever. And everyone laughed along with me, raising their glasses in our direction.
My intended, Charles Preston Sappington, rose to his feet, shaking my father’s hand and clapping him on the back good-naturedly. Was the clap a little harder than necessary? Yes. Was the threat as affable as my father made it sound? No.
I caught my dad’s eye and he winked. I giggled loudly, earning an eye roll from my mother, who had the most audible eye roll in the room. In any room. And particularly any room my father was in.
Relieved that I could get back to my dinner, I felt Charles’ hand on the back of my neck. He leaned over me, pressing an absentminded kiss onto the top of my head. “Going to go say hello to the Nickersons; I’ll be right back,” he whispered.
I kissed the air behind him as he sped off to press some more flesh, and turned to see my mother watching us.
“Don’t you think you should go with him, dear?” she asked, watching as my fiancé schmoozed. Our rehearsal dinner, and he was schmoozing.
“Not particularly. Did you try the artichoke soufflé? It’s delicious,” I answered, forking up another bite.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough, dear? That wedding dress barely fits as it is.” She signaled for a waiter to remove my plate.
I smiled resignedly, setting down my fork with a clatter that earned me an eyebrow raise. “Sorry,” I mumbled, patting at my lips delicately with my napkin, which I refolded and placed squarely in the center of my lap.
“Oh, leave her alone, Marjorie, she’s getting married! She should enjoy this night! You know, before the Big Fade,” Dad teased.
A snort escaped me, and my mother’s neck turned three shades of red.
“Honestly, Thomas, I hardly think it’s appropriate to tease her like that, the night before she gets married. And what was that toast? You know people? For goodness’ sake, who are these alleged people? Accountants? Pencil pushers?”
“Oh, lighten up! It was a joke, that’s all,” my father protested, clearly loving this.
Divorced for the last six years after twenty-two years of bickering, my father loved nothing in the world more than to get my mother’s back up. And she never failed to take the bait.
But tonight, she surprised us both by pushing back from the table. “Chloe, go stand with Charles. He shouldn’t have to chat up all these guests by himself,” she chided, not giving my father a second glance as she sailed away. Tall and regal and every inch the mother of the bride, she slipped seamlessly into the background, making sure that the waiters were circling and everyone had everything they needed. She was the hostess with the mostest, a job that I supposed I should be doing. Truth? I wanted more of that sinful artichoke soufflé.
I glanced at my father’s plate and he grinned, shoving it across the table toward me. I grinned back, then quickly ate the soufflé.
“So, you ready for tomorrow?” he asked as we watched the room.
Pleasantries, mingling, restrained and dignified laughter spilling around the room. Fifty of our very very closest friends and family. And this was only the rehearsal. Four hundred (four hundred!) people from all over Southern California had been invited to the wedding tomorrow, being held at one of San Diego’s toniest country clubs. We’d been members for years, and when my parents’ divorce was final, my mother made it clear that it was now her territory alone. But my father was required to pay the membership dues every year. Alimony.
“I suppose,” I said, and sighed, wondering not for the first time why I sighed every time someone asked me about the wedding.
My father noticed. “Kiddo?” he asked, concern crossing his handsome face.
“I’d better go chat with the Nickersons,” I answered, having just gotten the stink eye from my mother from across the room. She meant well. And it was my rehearsal dinner, after all; I should be enjoying hearing everyone’s congratulations. I reminded myself of this several times in the time it took me to make my way from the corner table to the center of the restaurant, where my intended held his hand out for me. I pasted on the look of happiness and sincerity that had won me Miss Golden State nearly two years ago. Charles, the most handsome man I’d ever known, smiled down at me, my smile taking its cue from his as he slipped his arm around me and brought me effortlessly into the conversation.
Smile. Nod. Laugh. Smile. Nod. Laugh. Smile. Nod. Sigh.
I stole a moment later in the evening, after the coffee had been served and the endless toasts completed (how in the world would anyone have anything to say tomorrow if they blew their toast wad at the rehearsal dinner?), and guests were beginning to edge toward the door. My mother mingled like a pro, smiling and nodding at each one as they complimented her on what a lovely daughter, what a lovely couple, what a lovely evening . . . arghh. Smiling and nodding was what she did best.
It was a grace I didn’t possess naturally, although I could fake it with the best of them. Case in point: my earlier smile and nod when a twenty-minute discussion was waged over which was the best lawn service in town. Have to keep those lawns as green as possible, even when there was a drought, you know. Or my smile and nod when Mrs. Snodgrass went on and on about a racy book that everyone was talking about but no one would admit to reading, when in fact I know every woman there had read it. I even smiled and nodded when Mr. Peterson lectured us about illegal immigration, when I knew for a fact that his nanny was undocumented. Honestly, I felt like a bobblehead at times. But that pageant training kicked in, and I could smile and nod for hours on end, always looking interested, always looking pleasant, always looking pretty.
But inside my head wasn’t pretty. Inside my head, I was wondering what would happen if I jumped onto a table and started screaming. What would the reaction be? Startlement? Horror? Amusement? How quickly would someone usher me off the table, and how quickly would everyone else go back to their coffee?
I was saved from my mental screaming by my mother, who was making a second pass around the restaurant. “Dear, the Snodgrasses are leaving. Be a good girl and go thank them for coming.”
“Yes, Mother.” I smiled and nodded. In particular at my handsome fiancé, who had already beaten me to the Mr. and Mrs. Snodgrass.
Finally, Charles and I found ourselves alone in front of the restaurant. Before Cinderella was packed off into her stretch limo coach, she was to say good night to her handsome prince.
“Are you excited about tomorrow?” he asked, encircling me with his strong arms. Arms he kept strong, along with every other part of his body, with hours of tennis, racquetball, swimming, jogging, and, of course, golf. Avid golfer. I’d been encouraged to take up the sport, so I did. Of course I did. Sigh.
“I’m very excited for tomorrow,” I murmured into his chest, catching the scent of his cologne. Heady.
“I mentioned to Nancy Nickerson that you’d be interested in volunteering some time when we get back in town. She’s chairing the committee for the new pediatric wing at the hospital. I signed you up.”
“Well, okay. But I’m not sure how much time I’m going to have. They just got two new therapy dogs at the hospital, and they need some help with—”
“Chloe. Baby. We talked about this before. Working with your pageant platform is one thing; the therapy dog charity was great. But you’re not doing pageants anymore, and we agreed it’s time to start moving on, taking on some new projects, right?”
“But, Charles, I’ve worked with this organization since high school; it was never just because I was in pageants. They always need help, and I think that—”
“Um. What?” I asked, crinkling my nose and looking up at him.
Charles Preston Sappington was tall. Dark. Handsome. Perfect. My mother, who traded in perfect, had introduced us. He was an attorney. He argued for a living, which is why I never bothered to argue with him. Hard to go toe-to-toe with the toughest litigator in all of Southern California. I know this because he had it on a plaque above his desk. So I rarely bothered. However . . .
“Did you just tell me no?”
“Can you explain to me why?” I asked, pushing against his chest a bit when he tried to hold me tighter.
“Not right now.”
“Baby, it’s late. We’ve got plenty of time to talk about stuff like this. But for now? Just concentrate on getting some sleep tonight so you can be beautiful for me tomorrow.” His voice sounded soothing. “You know I can’t wait for tomorrow, right? But then after that? The honeymoon, baby—the best part.”
His hands slid up my back and succeeded in pulling me into him. I sighed, bit back my remark, and concentrated on the band that was tightening around my chest. His arms, I mean.
“Two weeks in Tahiti. Private bungalow. Bikini. Maybe even no bikini,” he whispered, hands sliding down and giving my bum a grab.
“Charles! Someone could see!” I protested, looking around. He laughed, thinking this particular squall was over. After all, I was getting married tomorrow. Sigh.
“Baby, go to sleep. And then tomorrow, I’ll be waiting at the end of that aisle. You’ll be gorgeous. We’ll say some words, slip on some rings, and then you’re all mine. Sound good?” he crooned as he spun me around, then set me down to open the limo door.
“Mm-hmm,” I managed, a bit dizzy from all the spinning.
“There you two are! Now, Charles, scoot. She’s all yours tomorrow, but she’s still mine tonight,” my mother cried, appearing at my side with a grand smile.
“Yes, Mother Patterson,” Charles replied, knowing how much she hated when he called her that.
I giggled in spite of myself, and my mother frowned at me.
“Say good night to Charles,” she said primly, keeping any comments about Mother Patterson to herself for a change.
“Good night, Charles,” I echoed, leaning in for a kiss on the forehead.
“Night, ladies. See you tomorrow,” Charles said, packing us into the limo in a swish of silk and satin.
Sitting next to my mother, I listened to her chatter as we pulled away from the restaurant and headed toward our home. Where I’d lived since college.
Parents’ house. Sorority house. Parents’ house. Husband’s house? Sigh.
An hour later, I was in the bedroom I’d been sleeping in since I was seven. Canopy bed. Pom-poms. Tiaras. Sashes. Trophies. Pageant girl, remember? Elbow elbow wrist wrist.
Curled up on top of the covers, I was hot, my heart beating faster than normal. Nervous about tomorrow, I suppose. Marrying Charles. Becoming a Sappington and everything that meant.
I looked at the picture of us on my nightstand, taken the evening he’d proposed. The ring shone as brightly in the photo as it shone on my hand now. It was the largest diamond I’d ever seen, almost embarrassingly so. I slipped it off, setting next to the picture.
I’d met Charles eleven months ago. We were engaged five months to the day after we met. Whirlwind to say the least, and Charles was the most perfectly put-together whirlwind you’ve ever seen. Never a hair out of place, never a spot of food on his tie, or a piece of spinach in his teeth. The spinach would never dare.
But any piece of spinach would love to get the chance to lodge there. Charles Preston Sappington was the man about town, the bachelor every woman from San Diego to Santa Barbara had been trying to land for years. Any piece of spinach would count herself extremely lucky to be trapped between his pedigreed teeth; it was the dream tiny spinaches were told by their spinach mothers. Tall. Handsome. Rich. Good family. And if you do as you’re told, you too can go for the brass ring.
I was Miss Golden State. He was my final tiara after a lifetime of pretty and prancing. Now I could go quietly into that beautifully manicured good night, my wedding veil firmly in place. And a silent scream in the back of my throat.
With that comforting thought—and if by comforting, I mean abject terror—I turned out my light.
Toss. Turn. Toss. Turn. Toss. Turn. Tears.
Looking back, I wish I could tell you there was one particular thing that tipped the scales and made me run away from my wedding. But all I know was that from the moment I set my feet on the floor that morning, I knew something was off. And not just my stomach, although that had been burbling and gurgling since 3 A.M. Too much artichoke soufflé? I’ll never tell.
I ate oatmeal practically every morning of my life. Steel-cut oats, the slightest sprinkling of Splenda, fresh fruit (blueberries were my mother’s preferred choice—antioxidants are our friends), with a splash of nonfat milk. But today when I shuffled into the kitchen, I saw something I had never seen there before.
Actual. Beautiful. Sugary. Fatty. Gorgeous. Donuts.
Like, with the sugar and the fat.
I looked around to make sure that, yes, I was still in my own house. My oatmeal bowl was set out, place mat and utensils laid with care, as it was every day. Slow cooker was plugged in, with my preportioned amount piping hot and ready for eating. The small pitcher of nonfat milk sat by my place setting, holding exactly a half cup of gray, watery, not-so-much milk.
But . . . did I mention there were donuts?
On reflection, I was wrong when I said I didn’t know what tipped the scales that morning. Donuts were where I went off the rails.
Taking one more look around to make sure no one was there to witness this culinary mortal sin, I walked over toward the platter. And regarded the donuts, piled high and arranged with attention toward making a beautifully delicious display. These confectionary wonders, these puffy delights, these sugary and fatty diet cheats—I chose one toward the back, sticky with chocolate glaze and full of spite toward every diet I’d ever been put on.
I was a slim girl; genetics plus a Southern California lifestyle had made me so. Part of the reason I won Miss Golden State is due to the fact that I look exactly like every picture of the “Wish they all could be” variety of a California Girl. Long blond hair. Tan. Tall; not so much curves as there were hills and valleys; strong from running, tennis, Pilates, yoga, you name it. I’d nevertheless had it drilled into me from a young age that skinny was better, and to enforce that, nary a donut was ever brought into this home. Of course, I’d had them at friends’ slumber parties occasionally. And when I turned sixteen, and realized that a driver’s license and a little bit of baby-sitting money allowed me t...
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