Jon was thankful that Alicia insisted on this being an informal affair. That meant he did not have to struggle with that damned tie again. Although he would for her. But the buttons on his shirt and belt buckle were proving more than challenge enough with only the one good hand. Hell, even buttoning and zipping his khakis hadn’t been as easy as before. If there had been any doubt in his mind about the surgery, there wasn’t anymore. With no sensation and little circulation, that hand was useless.
He stared into the bathroom mirror of the hotel room. His mother had insisted that he stay with them in the posh resort in Palm Springs. Her excuse was that it was bad luck for the groom to see the bride on their wedding day. But as always, the great Marianne Buford Walker Tyler had a hidden agenda. They had not been back here half an hour when she knocked on his door.
He had cut short her diatribe on why this marriage was ‘another of his mistakes’ with the announcement that Hope was his child. But he had regretted it almost before he had finished the sentence. It only served to launch the women into an attack on Alicia’s character and supposed scheming to pass her bastard off as a Tyler. Of course, his mother’s racism and classism were just below the surface with comments like ‘those people.’ It had turned into another of their yelling matches.
Until J. T. had arrived to negotiate a truce. His ‘perfect’ big brother swopping in to save the day – again. The only good thing was that his beloved baby sister was eight and a half months pregnant and could not make the trip. His mother, brother, and J. T.’s family were bad enough. Priscilla, J. T.’s equally ‘perfect’ wife, at least in the eyes of Marianne Buford Walker Tyler, was almost a clone of his mother and sister. A woman with ‘breeding.’
Jon rested his scarred cheek against the cold, damp mirror. Why had he invited them? But he knew the answer to that one, too. This was his public declaration of war against his mother. He had already spoken with Kacey and downloaded the forms from the VA. Even before the ink was dried on his marriage license, he would be signing a new will. And the VA papers would be in the mail first thing tomorrow. After all, this was about protecting his family. Or so he kept telling himself.
And part of that was establishing his intent with his family. If the worst happened, he knew that his mother would contest the will. Hire the best lawyers and do her best to make certain that Alicia and Hope were left with nothing. Not merely from his grandfather’s trust that she controlled, but his VA benefits and his cabin as well. He had been frank with Kacey about the whole thing, and she assured him that she would make sure it never came to that. But still, this public spectacle could be used in court, too.
Shit, just what he needed. His unimpeachable, superstar big brother. But to be fair, J. T. had not sided with their mother last night. Instead, true to form as the renowned U. S. Attorney for the Southern District, Texas, the man had brokered a temporary cease-fire with the woman. Didn’t he, at least, owe J. T. something for that?
“I’m coming,” he gave up on the button he had been struggling with. It would just have to do. Or maybe he could get Chris to help out before the ceremony? He and Alicia had foregone any attendants, other than Hope and Amy. Amy was serving as flower-person and their daughter as ring-bearer. But if he had had to choose a best man, this time it would have been his new friend rather than the man on the other side of the door, related to him by DNA only.
He paused with his hand on the doorknob, trying to prepare himself for another round of his family’s interference with his life. But if Marianne Buford Walker Tyler had sent his brother to deliver more of her vitriol, he’d show the man the door just as quickly as he had their mother. He turned the knob and opened the door.
J. T. leaned against the door frame, his dark blond head bent. When he looked up, Jon noticed the deep lines on his forehead and around the mouth, perpetually set in a frown like their mother’s. “If you’ve come here with more…”
His brother held up his hands and took a step back, “I promise, that isn’t why I’m here.”
Jon shook his head and turned back into the hotel room. He was not convinced. How many times had the exalted Marianne Buford Tyler Walker sent this man to do her dirty work? Almost every time, her bullying had failed to get him to toe the line.
“I’m not listening to another of your speeches about family honor, J. T. We both know that honor has nothing to do with it. Money and power are all this fucking family ever cared about. And…”
“Jon, I meant it. I’m not here because of mother.” His brother dropped his head and stuck his hands deep into the pockets of his suit pants.
The silence stretched out until it made even Jon uncomfortable, “Why are you here then, J. T.?”
His brother’s smile was tight and forced as he finally looked up sheepishly from the carpet. “You probably won’t believe me, but I came to wish you well.”
Jon plopped on the foot of the unmade bed. J. T. was correct. He was having trouble believing him. After a lifetime of sibling rivalry, much of it fostered by their parents, it was difficult to imagine anything else.
But J. T. was an attorney. A powerful and well-thought-of one. He could make the difference. “If you mean that, brother, then I have a favor to ask.”
J. T. chuckled, “Why do I feel this isn’t going to be as easy as all that?”
Jon did that half-smile that was getting surprisingly easier as the muscles in his cheek became more used to the stretching. They had done that for him. His daughter and her. They had given him something to smile about. Not merely for the first time in five years, but perhaps in his whole, fucking, messed-up life. Now he would do what was right by them.
“I want you to witness my new will today.”
“Woe, you don’t mess around, little brother. Would you mind explaining?”
It was Jon’s turn to glare at the plush beige carpet. It wasn’t as nice as that old brown shag stuff at his home. His home? Well, technically hers. Theirs? He wasn’t sure. Why had he allowed his mother to do this – again? He knew her schemes, divide and conquer. Wasn’t it the same old game she always played? Sow seeds of doubt laced with those knowing smiles. Then step back and watch the weeds choke out everything good. But not this time.
“I go into surgery on Thursday.”
Those lines in J. T.’s face deepened. “Another one? Does mother know? What for this time? More grafts? I thought the last round was the last?”
Jon shook his head, “No, mother doesn’t know. And I want to keep it that way. At least until you leave town.”
He looked his brother directly in the eyes as he spoke this time. If there was any chance of salvaging a relationship with the man, it had to be on his terms. “They’re amputating the left arm above the elbow.”
J. T. collapsed on the foot of the bed next to him. Silence filled the air once more, but this time it did not bother Jon. He could anticipate all his brother’s questions. They were, after all, the same ones he had struggled with for so long.
“The nerve damage and circulation in it aren’t getting better the way they hoped. In fact, it’s getting worse. The doctors have been pushing surgery for close to a year now. I just couldn’t decide.” He shook his head, “No, that’s not right. I didn’t have any reason to choose. Anything to live for. Not until I walked back into that diner and saw them.”
J. T. nodded, “I don’t want to argue with you. We’ve spent a lifetime doing that. But are you sure?”
Jon chuckled, “About the surgery? This marriage? Or that Hope is my child? It doesn’t matter. The answer to all those questions is the same: yes. Yes, I’m sure. The doctors say it will take some time, more physical and occupational therapy, and probably more patience than I have left. But eventually, I’ll be able to do more with a prosthesis than I can with this stub.”
“As for Hope, yes, she’s my daughter. And I don’t owe you or mother any further explanation than that. So, yes, I’m certain about this marriage, too. It might be a bit late, but I’m doing the right thing for my family. Including changing my will.”
“I realize what I’m asking of you, J. T. I know that if the worst did happen, mother would contest this will. Claim coercion or some such shit. But Alicia doesn’t even know about my trust fund. She thinks this is about VA benefits and next-of-kin for medical purposes, and those do play into it. But damn it, my child has as much right to that money as yours or Clarice’s.”
“I trust that our friend Kacey has written as iron-clad a document as possible. But we both know that mother will throw the best lawyers in this country at Alicia. By you being one of the witnesses, it strengthens the claim. That a family member and another attorney knew of my intent would go a long way with the courts. But we both know if mother ever finds out…”
“She’ll be livid.”
“Actually, I was going to say she’ll have your balls.”
J. T. smiled and laughed; this time, when those lines deepened, they didn’t age him beyond his years, though. “Yes, there is that. But I figure I have let you down often enough over the years. This seems like the least I can. Just do me one favor, try not to die. I would rather it not come to that.”
“Trust me, I’m going to do my fucking best not to. For the first time, I have something worth living for.” Jon would have sworn that some shadow or trick of the lights made his brother look almost forlorn.
“I’m happy for you, Jon. Honest, I am. If anyone deserves that, it’s you.”
“I don’t know about deserving it, but damned, I’m not going to be stupid enough to look that gift horse in the mouth again,” and he honestly meant that. No matter what his past held, they were his future, and looking back would get him nowhere.
“Okay, then, we better get moving. Priscilla and the children should be ready by now. Mother went on ahead to collect Alicia in a limo. They’ll meet us at the courthouse.”
“Mother went to pick Alicia up?” His heart pounded, and those elephants took up residence on his chest again. “I’ll be lucky if she shows up once the formidable Marianne Buford Walker Tyler gets those vicious claws into her.”
Alicia stared at the woman in the mirror. Was that indeed her? Strands of hair on either side of her face were braided, interlaced with desert flowers, and drawn back into a ponytail that hung down her back. A wreath of more flowers set atop her head. Her dress was a natural muslin sundress that fell in waves above her knees in front and almost to the floor in the back. A bouquet of more wildflowers sat on the dresser, tied with a cream-colored ribbon to match her dress.
Perhaps it was not the lavish white wedding dress that she had once dreamt of, but it fit. Not just her body but her life…and this situation. It was not a situation. It was a wedding. The beginning of her married life.
So, why was she still haunted by those doubts? Even after succumbing to Jon’s pleas and the insecurities in those blue eyes, she had been fraught with them. So much so that she had asked Mandy for Kaitlin Danver’s number. She had already had two hour-long sessions with the woman. It was enough to get her this far. But she wasn’t sure if it would get her down that aisle or those words passed her throat.
She heard a knock and turned away to get it, but Alison was already half-way down the hall. “I’ll get it. You finish getting ready. It’s a bit early, but maybe that’s the others.”
Unfortunately, it was not her friends. But her soon-to-be mother-in-law. Jon had tried to warn her. But Alicia was not sure there were any words to adequately describe Marianne Buford Walker Tyler. The closest she could come was a mix between the queen and Alexis Carrington. But possibly nastier?
Jon had repeatedly apologized for inviting his family, even before they showed up last night. But he insisted that in the long term, it would be best to confront the situation head-on. Especially since he believed that his mother would rush in the moment, she heard about his surgery and try to take over. Alicia had agreed with his logic and the decision.
Until the women, his older brother, and the man’s whole family had shown up at the diner in the middle of a Saturday night dinner rush. The woman insisted that they all have a bridal dinner at the resort where they stayed in Palm Springs. An hour’s drive? With a six-year-old who was already overly excited about the wedding? On one of her busiest nights?
Heck, she had broken with tradition and even closed the diner today. She could not remember the last time they had done that. Even on Christmas and Thanksgiving, they came in during the late afternoon to serve dinner to those without families, the poor, and the homeless. Not even after her Grandmother’s death had she closed it. She knew that having everyone back here after the funeral was how her Abuelita would want to be remembered. She had even planned to do the same for her reception. But Steve, Sarah, and Mandy insisted they did not want her working on her wedding day.
Her wedding day? To that woman’s son? Alicia swore she was about to throw up. What had she done? What had she gotten herself into?
“Is that what you’re wearing, dear?”
Yep, those were the words she would expect from this woman.
What she did not expect was the confection of sunshine to race past her down the hallway and wrap her little arms around the woman’s too thin waist. “Abuela.”
She was eternally grateful that her daughter’s face was buried in the woman’s designer suit. Because the look on the woman’s face would freeze ice on an August day in Death Valley. She lifted her chin, pasted a smile into place, and walked towards them. Her voice was far chipper than she felt as she unwound those little arms, “Hope, sweetie, we should let Mrs. Tyler have a seat while we finish getting ready.”
“Abuela, Mama. If Jon is my Papa, then she is my Abuela now.”
The woman tugged at the bottom of her black suit jacket. Her countenance was probably unnaturally tight from all the plastic surgery. Still, Alicia did not dare tell her how unattractive she looked with that expression on her perhaps once pretty face. “Yes, child, you should listen to your mother. The car is waiting. We need to head to the courthouse soon.”
The woman lifted her nose just a bit higher, if that were possible. “I suppose a courthouse is better than some questionable Vegas chapel, like last time.”
It was not the first time that the woman had made certain Alicia was aware this was not Jon’s first marriage. But she had known the truth of his marriage from that first night. Did this woman? If she did, then Alicia was guaranteed that Marianne Buford Walker Tyler had used that against her son. She was determined not to give this woman any further fodder against him.
“Please, have a seat. We shouldn’t be much longer,” she smiled down at her daughter but was saddened to see that the twinkle of excitement was dimmed just a bit. No, she would not allow this woman to do this to her child. Or her husband.
The woman looked around and tugged more on her jacket. “Actually, would it be possible for me to use your facilities?”
It took her half-a-heartbeat to realize what the woman meant, and she had to fight hard not to laugh at the woman’s ostentation. “Sure, it’s the door at the end of the hall. Straight ahead. Hope, are you ready? Have you brushed your teeth and washed your face?”
Her daughter gave her a knowing look, “Of course, I did that before I put on my new dress, Mama.”
“Alright then, let me just grab my bouquet from the bedroom, and we can head out.” Alicia forced one of those fake smiles as the woman turned down the hallway.
She followed her soon-to-be mother-in-law, though Alicia slipped into her room, their room now. She looked at the neatly made bed that she had shared with Jon for over a month now. Was this the right thing? Sure, between those sheets, they never had any problems. And there was no doubt that Jon was everything that Hope needed.
No, despite that woman and her own mixed feelings, this was the right choice. The only way, as Jon said. She faced the woman in the mirror once more as she inspected more than just her appearance. She would just have to learn to live with things the way they were.
She picked up her bouquet with resolve and turned back down the hallway but was disturbed by another knock at the door. Alison barely opened it when a perfectly coiffured Sarah burst through the doorway, dragging a very pregnant and exhausted-looking Mandy and a slightly pea-green Kacey. “The calvary has arrived, girlfriend.”
But it was the confident and serene young blond behind them whose smile did the most to reassure Alicia. Kaitlin had offered to officiate at the ceremony as she had for their friends. But Alicia could not bring herself to accept the woman’s offer. This marriage was, after all, more of a business deal than the great love match that Steve, Sarah, and Mandy or Kaitlin, Chance, and Chase were. No, a courthouse was a more appropriate venue to seal this deal.
She felt the tears gathering even as the bile rose in her throat. She turned back down the hall just in time to brush past Marianne Buford Walker Tyler in her mad dash for the one bathroom in the house. She just hoped that she did not get vomit all over her wedding dress. This wedding was turning into enough of a disaster as it was.
But bless her, she loved Sarah even more as she overheard her loud dismay, “Oh, darling, we must have a fashion word. Black at a wedding? This time of year?” If anyone could put that woman in her place, it was Sarah.