Julian takes a sip of his champagne before reaching under the table to take my hand. “You okay?” he whispers.
I nod. Nothing unexpected here. But tears well in my eyes anyway.
The woman next to me leans over and pats my shoulder. I don’t remember her name, but she was a regular at Mom and Dad’s parties back in the day—always wearing diamonds and kissing ass. “We all miss Brittany, sweetheart,” she says. “Just try to put on a smile for your parents.”
I take my napkin and dab my eyes, smiling as she’s so graciously suggested. “Thank you,” I say, as if she just offered me profound advice. As if people haven’t been telling me that for the last eleven years. Just smile. Be strong for your parents. And, the platitude I hate the most: Everything happens for a reason.
I turned that last one back on them when I got knocked up at seventeen. Most of them didn’t get my point—that they only say such things when it suits them—but it shut some of them up.
“Excuse me.” I push my chair back and stand. If I sit here one more minute, I’m at risk of either vomiting or screaming at the whole table. Maybe I’ll really make a statement and do both. “I just need a minute.”
Julian’s chair squeaks against the tile floor as he pushes back and stands next to me. “I’m coming with you.”
I want to be alone, but we’ve already attracted too much attention, so I take his hand rather than risk making a scene. Hand in hand, we wind our way around the table and toward the front of the restaurant. I try to keep my steps even, to let Julian set the pace, since I’m apt to run.
The host rushes forward and opens the door for us, and when the night air hits my face, I draw in a long, deep breath.
You’re okay. Just breathe. In through the nose. Out through the mouth.
The early spring evening is mild, and when the door closes behind us, trapping the cacophony of the restaurant inside, it’s like finally breaking the surface after being held underwater.
Julian rubs his big hands down my bare arms as if he’s trying to warm me, and I have to take another deep breath to keep myself from swatting his hands away. “They don’t mean to hurt you, Brinley.”
I’m not sure that’s true. “It’s not that.” And it’s not. Dad’s barbs hurt. They always do. But the anxiety pressing down on my chest has more to do with the wedding than with my parents.
Julian pulls me close and trails soft, leisurely kisses down my neck. His mouth is sweet, his kisses tender, but his touch does nothing to melt away the anxiety that has me in knots.
“What’s going on out here?” Savannah asks in a singsong voice behind us, the click of heels on the sidewalk growing closer.
Julian groans as he lifts his head. “I would think that was obvious, Savvy. I was trying to seduce my fiancée.”
“Right here on the street? You should at least put out a bucket for tips.”
I turn around in time to see the annoyance on my best friend’s face. Savvy was Team Marston before she ever met him. “Don’t worry,” I say. “We’re keeping it PG-13 so we don’t offend innocent eyes like yours.”
Julian chuckles softly, and Savvy shifts her purse into her other hand to give me a one-armed squeeze. “I’m sorry I’m late.”
Julian frowns at me. “You invited Savannah?”
I shrug. “Strength in numbers.”
“Did I miss anything good?” Savvy asks.
“My dad gave a speech about how I’m a dumb, incompetent woman who’s lucky a man like Julian is willing to take me on as his charge.”
Julian grimaces. “It wasn’t that bad.”
“The way he talks, everyone in that room probably believes I’d electrocute myself making toast without supervision.”
Savvy wrinkles her nose. “At least he’s consistent?”
I give her an exaggerated fake smile and add, “It was fine. Everything’s fine. I’m so happy my parents came to town to show off my fiancé to their friends.” I throw out some jazz hands. “Yay!”
Frowning, Savvy looks at the door and back to me. “Tell me they’re at least paying for the booze.”
I slide my arm through hers. “Let’s go order the most expensive steaks and competitor bourbon.”
“You’re so devious, and I love it!”
Laughing together, we head back into the restaurant. I look over my shoulder to make sure Julian’s coming, and he schools his expression into a smile—but not before I see the twist of his frown and the irritation in his eyes.
He doesn’t like that Savvy interrupted our moment. I get that and respect it, but the way he looks at her like she’s the enemy? That doesn’t help this sinking feeling in my gut.
* * *
“Invite me in,” Julian says, squeezing my hand when we reach my door. “I know tonight was hard for you. Let me come in. It’s been over a week since we’ve been together.”