Authors: Elin Hilderbrand
“You don’t want to bring me?” Ursula said. She studied the invitation. “Cooper hates me now? He thinks I’ve been jerking you around? He thinks we’re toxic together?”
“It’s not that,” Jake said. “I don’t talk about…I’ve never said anything bad about you.” This was mostly true, but Jake must have drunkenly slandered Ursula at some point in front of Coop. Every single one of Jake’s friends knew that Ursula was his kryptonite.
“Who is Krystel Bethune?” Ursula said. “I haven’t met a Krystel. I would have remembered.”
Right. Ursula was particular about names. Her litmus test had always been, Is your name suitable for a Supreme Court justice? Safe to say, in Ursula’s opinion, there would never be a Supreme Court justice named Krystel. This was a perfect example of why people disliked Ursula.
“He met her back in the spring,” Jake said. “At the Old Ebbitt Grill.” Jake didn’t bother mentioning that Krystel had been Cooper’s waitress; Ursula would have had a field day with that.
“This country club is nice, I’ve heard,” Ursula said. “Old railroad money. Tell them I’ll be your plus-one, will you?”
“Um…” Jake said. He didn’t want to take Ursula to Cooper’s wedding. He hadn’t thought it would be an issue. Ursula was always working and she didn’t like to leave the District for any reason. It was like she was umbilically connected to SEC headquarters. “I already said I was going solo. It’s pretty fancy and the wedding is next week. I don’t want to spring this on them.”
“They’ll understand,” Ursula said. “I may take a lunch today and go buy a dress.”
“Or you could take a lunch and eat lunch,” Jake suggested.
Ursula slapped the invitation down. “I’m excited about this. A wedding! Maybe we’ll be next.”
Jake put off asking Cooper to add Ursula to the guest list because Jake was certain she would cancel. Work emergency. The wedding was on December 18, and Ursula was hip-deep in an investigation that she couldn’t talk about. Jake was
Ursula would cancel. He wanted to see Mallory alone.
Mallory. Mallory. Mallory.
When, by December 15, Ursula still hadn’t changed her mind—she had, in fact, bought a black velvet off-the-shoulder gown—Jake called Cooper and told him he was bringing a plus-one. Coop checked with his mother, Kitty, who said that was a stroke of phenomenal luck because they’d had one last-minute cancellation.
“Way to go,” Cooper said. “You managed to add a guest without pissing off Kitty.”
“Great,” Jake said half-heartedly. Kitty wasn’t the person he was worried about.
The ceremony was to start at five. Ursula and Jake pulled into the church parking lot at ten past four because there would be a quick run-through for the groomsmen and bridesmaids—and also some Jim Beam, Cooper said.
“What am I supposed to do while you rehearse?” Ursula asked snippily, sounding very much like her pre-back-together self. “I don’t want to sit in the church alone.”
“Work in the car?” Jake said. At her feet, Ursula had an attaché case filled with depositions. He was relieved she didn’t want to come into the church early. Mallory was a bridesmaid and although she was eventually going to find out Ursula was in attendance—it was possible Coop or Kitty had already told her—at least they would have the rehearsal hour together. Jake could talk to her, warn her, explain. He’d brought Mallory a gift camouflaged in white wrapping paper with silver bells that he’d told Ursula was a private-joke-groomsman-thing for Coop. He wasn’t sure he’d have the courage to slip it to Mallory, although now was his best chance. He plucked the gift from the back seat, where it rested next to the KitchenAid stand mixer that they’d gotten for Coop and Krystel, and tucked it under his arm.
The sanctuary of Roland Park Presbyterian was lit by hundreds of ivory pillar candles, the altar blanketed with white poinsettias. The other groomsmen and Cooper were all in white tie and tails. Jake set Mallory’s gift in an empty pew and rushed up the aisle; he was the last to arrive. He saw five bridesmaids lined up in the first pew; they were listening to the pastor’s instructions. Jake tried to pick out Mallory from the back of her head, but then he saw Coop urging him to hurry up and take his place in the formation.
“Sorry,” Jake whispered. “Traffic on the Beltway.”
Coop slipped Jake a leather flask, and Jake stood next to Frazier, who was the best man.
“Good to see you upright,” Jake said.
Fray smirked. He looked far better than he had that summer; he had a good haircut and was clean-shaven. “At least
was on time.”
Jake turned his head toward the cross while he took a slug off the flask; he had never needed a drink as badly as he did right that second. He tapped Frazier. “You want some, man?”
“Nah,” Frazier said. “I’m on the wagon for a little while.”
That probably wasn’t a bad idea, Jake thought, considering what had happened the previous summer. Jake took a second swig and, thus fortified, he looked over at Mallory. She was wearing a long ivory dress with lace cap sleeves. Her hair was swept up in a style that had a name Jake couldn’t remember. She was wearing full makeup and although Jake had grown attached to his unvarnished memories of Mallory, he thought,
Her eyes looked bigger; her cherry-red lips were incredibly sexy. She had on a pearl choker and pearl earrings and there was baby’s breath woven into her hair.
When she saw him, she grinned and waved like a little kid. The sheer earnestness of her excitement made Jake want to pull her up to the altar and marry her right there and then. Also, it made him hate himself. It was obvious she didn’t know he’d brought Ursula.
They ran through the wedding choreography, minus Krystel and the maid of honor, who were off-site getting ready. Jake had not been partnered with Mallory, which crushed him so badly that he nearly offered Cooper’s colleague, Brian from the Brookings Institution, a hundred bucks to switch. Jake was insanely jealous when he saw Brian and Mallory with their arms linked. He was such a hypocrite! Ursula was waiting in the car. He and Ursula were back together, all the way back.
The run-through took ten minutes. They did it twice and then the bridesmaids were supposed to retreat to an anteroom to wait, but Mallory hurried right over to Jake. The expression on her face made it look like she wanted to tackle him in wild passion, but when she was a couple feet away, she stopped, probably just then reminding herself that they were in a church and that no one on earth knew what had transpired between them on Labor Day weekend.
“Hey,” she said. “Good to see you.”
Her restraint was adorable. “You look beautiful,” he said. “Take-my-breath-away beautiful.”
She dipped her chin. “You look beautiful too. The tails.”
“Listen,” he said. “There’s something I have to tell you.”
She raised her face. She was as luminous as one of the ivory pillar candles. “That you’ve thought about me each and every day for the past three and a half months?”
“I have,” he said honestly. “Of course I have. But…at the last minute, I brought a guest to this thing.”
Mallory’s eyes searched his face and he saw her swallow. It was excruciating, watching her be brave. She bobbed her head and Jake wanted to march out to the car and tell Ursula to drive home, there’d been a mistake, she wasn’t welcome. This, of course, was impossible, and Jake did love Ursula, or at any rate, he found himself unable to live without her.
Mallory said, “I know I don’t have any claim on you.”
You do, though,
he thought. “Listen, I brought you something.” He retrieved the gift from the pew and handed it to Mallory.
“A book?” she said. She tore off the paper, crushed it into a ball in her fist, and, without missing a beat, slid it into Jake’s pants pocket. Her fingers brushing his leg made him weak for a moment. “
The Virgin Suicides.
“It’s by a man,” Jake said. “But it’s good anyway. Merry Christmas, Mal.”
A tall, frosted-blond woman in an elegant long-sleeved ivory knit dress appeared at the head of the aisle. “Mallory, darling, chop-chop.”
Mallory gave Jake a wobbly smile. “That’s Kitty,” she said. “I have to go. Save me a dance.” She stood on her tiptoes to kiss Jake’s cheek, then scurried away, hitching up the hem of her dress so she wouldn’t trip.
Jake was distracted during the ceremony. He’d been the one who led Ursula to her seat on the groom’s side, and she’d clutched his arm and whispered, “I shouldn’t have come. I don’t know a soul.” He then stood at the altar practically incandescent with anger. Why had he allowed Ursula to come as his date? The answer was hardly rocket science. She had said she wanted to—and Ursula always got what she wanted. Jake was so angry he couldn’t even look at her, so instead he sneaked peeks at Mallory, who seemed genuinely absorbed by her brother and Krystel exchanging vows.
For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health
Maybe we’ll be next,
Ursula had said.
Jake thought. If he were to lose his job, go bankrupt, get hit by a bus, or be diagnosed with terminal cancer while he was married to Ursula, he’d be on his own.
He would never, ever marry Ursula.
Mallory wiped away a tear. Cooper kissed the bride. The organist played “Ode to Joy.” Everyone clapped. Jake sought out Ursula. She was looking into her lap. Reading…the program? No. She’d brought
into the church. She folded her papers in half, tucked them into her purse, then looked up to see that Jake had caught her. She blew him a kiss.
In the car on the way to the country club, Ursula said, “Bride was pretty. But wearing a white fur stole at the altar? Wearing a white fur stole, period? T-a-c-k-y.”
“Please,” Jake said. “Don’t be a bitch.”
This was a standard start to one of their arguments: Ursula said something unkind, Jake called her on it, Ursula objected, the thing escalated. But tonight, Ursula stared at her hands. “You’re right,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
The ballroom at the country club had been transformed into a winter wonderland, and even in his agitated state, Jake found it hard not to be impressed. Everything was done in shades of white. Each round table had a small tree with white leaves in the center. From the branches hung glowing white ornaments. There was a wooden bramble arch decorated with white fairy lights and what must have been every white rose in the state of Maryland in creamy round bouquets. The orchestra was onstage in white suits; the waitstaff wore white dinner jackets. The cake was seven stepped layers iced with white fondant and topped with coconut meant to look like snow.
Jake and Ursula were seated at table 2. Mallory was seated at the far side of table 1 with the bride and groom, her parents, and Brian from Brookings. Mallory already had champagne and her head was tilted toward Brian as he told her something that made her laugh.
“Do you want champagne?” Ursula asked. “I’m having some.”
“I need something stronger,” Jake said.
Weddings were tricky, Jake decided after his third bourbon. They were either terrific or downright awful. This one was, technically, terrific—a lot of time, effort, and money had been invested—but because Jake had to babysit Ursula while at the same time pining for Mallory, it was also awful. He autopiloted through dinner and the toasts, noting only that Frazier’s toast was touching and appropriate, probably because he was stone-cold sober. Ursula was chatting with the guest to her left, Cooper’s cousin Randy, who was the in-house counsel for Constellation Energy in downtown Baltimore. They were talking shop, leaving Jake free to watch Mallory. She seemed
into Brian from Brookings—either that or she was trying to make Jake jealous.
The first dances came and went, then the band launched into “Holly Jolly Christmas,” and Brian pulled Mallory onto the dance floor. Jake watched them for a few seconds; Brian had the nerve to undo his bow tie and pop his top shirt button. Jake flashed back to the night at the Chicken Box. Mallory had danced with such gleeful abandon. Jake had been so close behind her that he could smell the strawberry scent of her shampoo.
That tiny gap in her front lower teeth. The soft skin of her throat. The sand that gathered in the whorls of her ears. The crumb on her lip. It was agonizing to think about.
He turned to Ursula. The right thing, he supposed, was to ask her to dance. But she had pulled out whatever document she’d shoved into her purse and was reviewing it.
Jake shook his head and went to the bar.
Krystel threw the bouquet; Cooper slipped off her garter. Ursula made no secret about finding both rituals distasteful, so she and Jake remained seated throughout. Meanwhile, Brian from Brookings was getting a little handsy with Mallory, and at one point, he kissed the top of Mallory’s head. Jake wanted to punch him. Could he reasonably cut in? The night was slipping away.
Save me a dance
“You look miserable,” Ursula said. She stuffed the brief back into her handbag. “I shouldn’t have come.”
Jake didn’t respond.
“Let’s dance,” Ursula said. The song was “Build Me Up Buttercup” and everyone else was out on the dance floor, so Jake offered Ursula his hand. They stayed in the back corner. Ursula was a terrible dancer, but Jake was used to it. He knew she felt self-conscious, so it was a major concession for her to even be out there.
Just as the song was ending, one of the white-jacketed waiters tapped Ursula on the shoulder. She had a phone call, apparently.
“Is everything okay?” Jake asked. He thought immediately of Ursula’s father, his heart trouble.
“It’s work,” Ursula said. “I gave them the number here—sorry. It’s that thing I’ve been looking over…due Monday.”
“Go,” Jake said. This was so predictable that he didn’t even pretend to be surprised or indignant. “Take your time.”
Ursula swept off the dance floor in a flurry of self-importance and the band segued into “At Last.” Jake marched right up to where Brian and Mallory were dancing, tapped Brian on the shoulder, and said, “May I?”
“Really, dude?” Brian said.
Mallory said, “This is my old friend Jake and he promised me a dance. I’ll find you later.” She stepped into Jake’s arms and Brian skulked off.