The tie was cutting off my oxygen. Uncle Lew must have tied the damn thing too tight, I surmised, pacing the confines of the kitchen. Our backyard was overflowing with happy guests. Homer was making the rounds in a new bow tie, trying to scam appetizers off of untended plates. Homer and Libby’s rescue dog, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was dancing at his heels in a sparkly tutu, enjoying the attention.
The shame page of the Culpepper Courier had struck again.
And here I was, guzzling a beer trying to drown the anticipation that was killing me.
This was a big day. The biggest.
I tugged at my collar for the nine hundredth time waiting for my bride. My wife-to-be. The fucking love of my life.
“Gusset strangling you?” Libby asked, popping into the kitchen from the stairs looking slightly less goth than usual in navy blue.
“What the hell is a gusset?” I demanded.
She attacked my tie, righting the damage I’d inflicted. “You’re going to be fine. She’s gorgeous. You’re not hideous. The caterers opened the bar early, and everyone out there is celebratorily blitzed already. It’s gonna be a great day,” she promised.
“Gorgeous. Hideous. Blitzed.” I nodded vigorously.
I know what you’re thinking. The perma-bachelor turned willing fiancé was having second thoughts. Ha. Joke’s on you jerks. I was in the throes of a panic attack stemming from the fact there was no way Marley Cicero would come down those stairs in some fluffy white dress and still agree to marry me.
She was too smart for that. I was a mess. A sweaty, manly mess.
I just needed to get her down the aisle and seal the deal before she came to her senses.
“She’s not having second thoughts, is she?” I wheezed.
Libby raised an eyebrow piercing. “She might when she sees you turning green.”
I slapped some color into my cheeks. Maybe a little too hard.
“Repeat after me,” she insisted. “I will not vomit on the bride.”
“I will not vomit on—Marley! Get your ass down here!” I bellowed. The need to drag her shapely ass outside and up the aisle to justice of the peace Tamra Hiebert was officially dire. If I didn’t see her in the next thirty seconds, I’d have an aneurysm or a heart attack or irritable bowel. Or all three at the same time.
“Is Libby with you?” Marley called down from the second floor where she was probably knotting bath towels together to escape.
“Yes,” I shouted back. I’d forgotten. We had a plan. The first look thing. This wasn’t just our day.
“Okay. Here I come,” Marley warned.
“Isn’t it bad luck?” Libby asked, sliding up on the kitchen counter and swinging her red Chuck Taylors.
“I saw her this morning before you estrogen-based beings kicked my ass out of the house,” I pointed out.
“Fair enough. I’ll give you guys a minute and check on the crowd outside,” she offered.
I stopped her with a hand in the air. “Stay right there. This is a first look for all of us.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’ve already seen both of you.”
“Yeah, but you haven’t seen us both together. We need to make sure we’re breathtaking and shit.”
The photographer, some swank Lancaster artsy-fartsy dude named JeMarcus that both Uncle Lewis and Amie Jo squealed over, poked his dreadlocks into the kitchen and pointed his camera at me.
“Ready to see your bride?” he trilled.
“Yes.” It came out kind of a snarl.
I was desperate to see her.
I was convinced she’d climbed off the porch roof and was Ubering to the airport.
Marley stepped into the room, and my vision went keyhole on me. People were talking, but it sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher. The only thing I could hear clearly was the staccato beat of my heart. Definitely heart attack.
She was beautiful. Gorgeous. Sexy as hell. And I hadn’t even looked at the dress. I didn’t care what she was wearing. I didn’t care that I was messing up her hair when I grabbed her in a hard hug and breathed her in. All I cared about was that she was here, grinning, holding me hard enough to convince me that she wasn’t going to Runaway Bride on me.
She wrestled her arms up and cupped my face in her hands. “Of course I’m here. Where else would I be?”
“Halfway to Tijuana by now.”
I kissed her on her mouth. Her cheek. Her temple. Her white gauzy thing. I realized she was wearing a veil. She looked so bridal it had me by the throat.
“You’re ridiculous,” she teased. Her eyes were bright. At least I thought they were. She was getting blurry on me. It was probably the aneurysm. “There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.”
“We’re really doing this? You didn’t change your mind? Because even if you did, I’m still forcing you to marry me. This is Pennsylvania. There’s probably a rule on the books somewhere making it legal.”
“Relax,” Marley ordered with a laugh. “Take a breath.”
“You’re so fucking beautiful.”
“You haven’t even looked at my dress.”
“Have so. It’s white and poufy and perfect.” She was swimming before me now, and my throat felt like I’d swallowed an entire jar of peanut butter.
“Don’t you dare,” she hissed. “The team spent forty-five minutes on this makeup and if you make me cry one single tear the entire day will be ruined.”
“I don’t care if you have snot bubbles in the pictures. We are doing this,” I insisted.
“You guys look…nice.” Libby sounded like she had the same peanut buttery throat problem.
Marley squeezed my arms. “You ready for this?” she whispered softly.
I wanted to answer but had to settle for a brisk nod.
Fingers linked, we turned to face Libby. The kid had brought more joy, more adventure, more fear into our lives than I thought possible. And today we were all going to make it official.
You see, guys. I met two special women, and they changed my entire life. And I wasn’t letting either one of them go.
“So, Libby,” Marley began, clearing her throat. Now it sounded like she was being strangled by her gusset. “There was a little more paperwork to making this whole thing official.”
I yanked the document off the kitchen table and shoved it at Libby.
“If you’re cool with it, of course,” I croaked. Great, my stomach felt like butterflies were punching me in it. Here came the irritable bowel. Libby could say no just as easily as Marley could decide she’d rather be a vice president of snack cakes in Europe. I was locking them down today.
Libby frowned and looked at the top page.
Marley was gripping my hand so hard I heard bone crack. I was too nervous to feel pain.
No one moved a muscle.
I heard the rapid click of the shutter, the laughter from somewhere in the backyard where half the town of Culpepper was doing shots of Prosecco. What could I say? We were classy AF.
“Is she reading the whole damn thing?” I hissed at Marley.
“How should I know? Oh, God. What if she’s trying to let us down easy?”
“I can hear you,” Libby said dryly.
“Then put us out of our misery, you little punk,” I said, choking the words out.
She looked up, nodded. Her eyes were filled to the brim, and I had to turn away to take a breath.
“These are adoption papers,” Libby said softly.
“We know you’re practically an adult,” Marley began, forcing me to turn back around. “And God knows you’re probably the most mature person in the house. But Jake and I would be honored if you would be our—”
We lost her. Marley was suddenly crying silently. Deep, shoulder-shaking sobs that wrecked the shit out of her makeup. I’d never seen anything more beautiful in my entire life.
“Daughter,” I choked out the word. Mars and me, we were a team. When we weren’t finishing each other’s sandwiches, we were finishing each other’s sentences. And we wanted to bring Libby into the game.
Libby slid off the counter and grabbed us both in a hug fiercer than any gusset.
“Is that a yes?” Marley sobbed.
“Yes, it’s a yes!” Libby hiccupped.
I didn’t say anything seeing as how my brain was leaking out of my eyes in the form of salt water, I just squeezed them both as tight as I could.
“Is now a good time to give you guys your present?” Libby asked.
“Gimme!” Marley lunged for the envelope.
I pulled my fingers back just in time. I’d learned over Christmas never to get between this woman and presents.
“I know you’re going to Puerto Rico for your honeymoon. So I kind of wrote this essay about me and you guys and how we all ended up together. And—”
Marley triumphantly yanked two tickets out of the mangled paper. She froze. “Holy shit. Holy. Shit.”
I elbowed the photographer out of my way and peered over my almost wife’s shoulder. “Ham—” I couldn’t get the word out. It stuck in my throat. “Ham—” I tried again, but my voice broke.
“Lin-Manuel Miranda is performing as Hamilton in Hamilton in Puerto Rico next week,” Libby said
“Lin-Manuel,” I breathed. I was hyperventilating. “Hamilton.”
“You have tickets and backstage passes. And he sent a cool video to you guys. He even raps in it a little,” Libby continued, wiping her nose on the back of her hand.
I couldn’t respond. I was too busy bawling like a fucking baby. Marley was rubbing my back, and Libby was laughing.
“Way to show up your new mother, jerk,” Marley teased. “All I got him was a stupid grill for the patio.”
“Let’s go, Cicero!” The chant started outside with hand claps. Family and friends were ready to celebrate.
“I’m gonna win some awards with these freaking pictures,” Artsy-Fartsy sang, clicking away to capture the greatest day of my entire life.
You didn’t think you’d get through my wedding day without hearing from me, the bride, did you? Let me tell you the highlights. My dress was amazing. A simple white crepe sheath that hugged all of my favorite body parts and generously skimmed over the ones I was only marginally fond of. I found it at a little boutique in Lancaster when I joined Libby and my mom on one of their shopping trips. We’d all gotten teary-eyed when I tried it on.
Guidance counselor Andrea showed up to the wedding with Bill Beerman as her official date. He had hives on his neck and couldn’t stop smiling. They danced to every song the DJ played after the ceremony, including the Electric Slide.
My parents were so excited when justice of the peace Tamra Hiebert interrupted the ceremony to make Libby’s adoption official that my dad bolted up the aisle and demanded that his new granddaughter start calling him Pop-Pop on the spot.
Zinnia and Ralph took advantage of their kids being distracted with wedding cake and snuck off. Vicky discovered them in the laundry room making out like teenagers. Since her meltdown at Thanksgiving, my sister went part-time at her job and insisted that her husband start working more human hours. They brought Jake and me a bottle of Dom and nine million thread count sheets to celebrate today.
Travis and Amie Jo—two people I never thought would be invited to my wedding—were there in their small-town king and queen glory. Amie Jo, who of course tried to steal the show in a floor-length, barely off-white dress, organized the entire event for me as a sort of “sorry for being a monster to you” apology. I had to admit, it was a great day. I drew the line at swans, but the ice sculpture on the patio buffet really classed the day up. Until Uncle Max accidentally bumped the table while discussing Barbra Streisand’s greatest hits with Jake’s mom and the gigantic heart tipped over, smashing to bits on the patio. I chose not to view it as a sign of things to come.
Floyd and Vicky performed an imaginative and sometimes disturbing dance mash-up while Vicky’s husband, Rich, dragged little Tyler away from the Boone’s Farm fountain that we borrowed from Amie Jo.
Libby and the rest of my inaugural soccer team dug out a ball, and we played barefoot in the front yard until the ice cream bar opened.
I had so many favorite people now. And they were all here. Especially the big, tattooed guy in half a tux. Jake had stripped out of his tie and jacket shortly after the ceremony. And he was beckoning me with the crook of a finger from the center of the dance floor. I ran to him. He caught me and lifted me up, spinning me around like he had at Homecoming. I felt like a winner. Like I was loved. Like I was just starting the best part of my life yet. And I got to share it with Jake Weston.
“I didn’t give you your present yet,” he said as he lowered me slowly and somewhat inappropriately against his hard body.
“Is it in your pants?” I guessed as he tugged my hips against his. Our gazes slid to the exquisitely wrapped box in front of my plate at our sweetheart’s table. Homer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were sitting in our chairs and licking our empty plates.
Behind us at a long table, his cross-country team was mainlining cake and ice cream like it was fuel.
“I’m going to say something completely out of character here,” I warned him. “I don’t think I can take one more good thing today.”
“You can’t?” he rolled his hips against me to the beat of the music and I felt him pressing his hard-on into me.
“Not that good thing. I’m already counting on that good thing.”
“Come on,” he urged. “I promise it’ll be the cherry on top of the perfect day.”
“It really is the perfect day, isn’t it?” I asked him, dreamy-eyed.
“Any day that I marry you, that I get to call you my wife, that I get to team up with you against Libby when she says she wants to shave her head and connect her nose ring to her eyebrow ring with a bedazzled chain is the perfect day,” he insisted.
“I love you so freaking much,” I said, my voice a little bit shaky.
“I’ve been waiting my whole life for you, Mars. I love you. Now, go open your damn present.”
We wiggled our way through drunk couples canoodling on the dance floor. The DJ was going to have to drop some “Cotton Eye Joe” before people started making babies in our backyard. We reached the table, gave the dogs a good scruffing, and Jake handed me the box.
“I wanted to give you something that would make your life better.”
“Better than Hamilton tickets?” I teased.
“Yeah, sorry. Nothing is ever going to beat that in a thousand million years. My man crush on Lin-Manuel knows no bounds. But hopefully this will rank up there somewhere.”
I tore off the paper, half smashing the box to get it open. It was a gift certificate or coupon of some sort. Had Jake Weston finally failed? Was this for a half-assed massage or an “I’ll wash your car four times for you” deal?
I read it. And couldn’t stifle my gasp.
He was grinning at me, proud of himself.
Neat & Tidy Home Cleaning Service.
“You got me a cleaning service?”
Don’t get me wrong. Jake had made great strides in cleanliness. But add Libby with her fifty shades of black wardrobe exploding all over the house and twice the usual dog hair and there were days when I just wanted to move into the garden shed and not let anyone else in.
“Twice a month, top to bottom,” he said proudly.
I wouldn’t have to spend every Sunday with a cleaning bucket singing “Cinderelly” under my breath anymore and flipping off my small messy family.
“This is the greatest gift you could have ever given me, Jake,” I said.
“Yeah. I know. I’m awesome. Happy wedding day, Mars.”