Rockdale, Ohio was a place I’d left fourteen years ago and I’d never looked back. As I stood on the street in the very same town I’d fought so hard to get out of, I looked at the house I’d grown up in. It was a small, double-story family home with a neat front lawn and a door that had now been painted a bright sunshine yellow.
Since my sister had come back here after college and was living in our parents’ old house, I’d been back here occasionally over the years, but never alone. Anna, my ex-fiancée, had always been with me and this was the first time since she’d left me at the altar that I’d been forced to come back.
I tightened my grip on the suitcase in my hand and struggled against the wave of depression threatening to drag me under. It had only been six months since my failed wedding in Niagara Falls, and the absolute last thing I wanted was to be surrounded by wedding planning and romance, but Teddy, my baby sister, was getting married and there was nothing I wouldn’t do for her.
Even if it meant coming back to Ohio and walking her down the aisle when I’d rather be doing literally anything else. Seriously, a root canal or a trip to inspect a sewage plant sounded more appealing than spending the next few weeks here, helping to finalize wedding plans and being whacked in the face with love and happily-ever-afters at every turn.
Suddenly, the front door swung open and my sister appeared. Her dark chocolate hair was piled into a messy bun on top of her head and smears of dry paint covered her faded denim overalls. She squealed loudly when she saw me. Then she broke into a full run and leaped into my arms, giving me a giant hug.
“Colt, you’re here,” she exclaimed, her voice muffled since she’d burrowed her face into my chest and was hanging on to me like a baby sloth clinging to its mother. “It’s so good to see you. I’ve missed you so much. How are you? Are you okay?”
I hugged her back, and a smile tugged at my lips. I couldn’t help it. Teddy had always had this effect on me. She was just too sweet and nice to frown at.
“I’m fine, Theodora,” I murmured against the top of her head. She tickled my ribs when I called her by her full name, and I chuckled. “How are you doing, my little bride-to-be?”
“I’m all good.” She released me, taking a step back and looking me over with intent shimmering in her dark brown eyes. Then she grabbed my arm and dragged me inside. “You say you’re fine, but forgive me for pointing out that you don’t look fine. In fact, you look like shit.”
“Gee, thanks.” I laughed but stopped abruptly when we walked into the foyer and I saw how she’d redecorated the place. My brain immediately tried to reject the explosion of color I was looking at.
My sister had always had particular tastes, but this was next level. There was so much pink and leopard print that I couldn’t quite take it all in. Bright rainbow-colored prints adorned the walls and DIY projects were everywhere. “Live, laugh, love” type phrase decals were mounted between the colorful paintings and long-haired rugs covered the floors.
I’d never shared my sister’s style, but I hadn’t tried to talk her out of it either. After our parents passed away in a car accident when I’d been nineteen, her affinity for color had become even more intense, as if she’d tried to fill her world with it when our circumstances had seemed bleak and lost.
It seemed Teddy had continued with that style, even if it hadn’t been quite so pronounced the last time I’d been here. My sister spun around to face me with a big grin on her bare, makeup-free face.
“You can have your old room,” she said, her smile dimming a little as she sighed. “I’ve finally moved into Mom and Dad’s old room. It seemed silly to let the master bedroom keep sitting there, empty, when I needed more space for business.”
I tugged her in under my arm and gave her another squeeze. “You did the right thing by moving in there. It was time. How’s your business going? Judging by the paint on your clothes, you’re still sprucing up the old items you find before you resell them?”
She slipped her arm around my waist and returned my sideways hug before motioning toward the kitchen. “Put your damn bag down and let me get you some lemonade. Then we can talk like normal people instead of awkwardly catching up in the foyer. To answer your question, though, the business is going well. I’ve been finding lots of treasures at estate sales and thrift shops, and since upcycling is such a thing right now, I’m selling it all like hotcakes once I’ve fixed it up a little.”
“Good news.” I grinned, let go of her, and took her advice to leave my suitcase behind. Then I followed her to the kitchen. “How’s Scott?”
“Lemonade first, Colt,” she said strictly, but she was still smiling as we walked into the equally colorful kitchen. All the cabinets were also painted sunshine yellow now, and it seemed she’d decided that chickens were a good theme for the heart of the home. It was cute, though, even if it was a little tacky to me.
She took a jug of homemade lemonade out of the fridge and filled a cup for each of us. Then she returned the jug and pulled out a stool at the counter before sitting down and wrapping her fingers around her drink like it was hot coffee on a winter’s morning instead of lemonade in the summer.
She regarded me as I sat down, too, her gaze tracking me carefully like she was expecting me to crumple into a ball of tears at any given moment. “How are you really? Don’t give me this false cheer bullshit. I was there in Niagara Falls when Anna didn’t show up. I saw her abandon you on your wedding day and how hurt you were because of it. Tell me the truth. How are you holding up?”
I sighed, but there was no getting around it. When our parents passed, she’d been sixteen. At nineteen myself, I’d become her legal guardian. It had been a rough time for both of us, and the one thing we’d promised each other was that we’d never lie about how we were doing.
It had seemed vital at the time, even if it was coming back to bite me in the ass now. I looked back at her, deciding to just get the emotional shit over with so we could move on. “If I’m being honest, it sucked. It was embarrassing and awful, and it’s been difficult coming to terms with it when I still don’t understand why she broke it off.”
I scrubbed my free hand over my face, releasing another deep breath. “I was completely fucking blindsided. I thought I’d be spending the rest of my life with her. Sure, we had arguments like every other couple, but I didn’t expect her to just walk out on me the way she did.”
Teddy gave me a comforting smile. “You might never find out why she left if you still don’t know, but you deserve someone who is all in on you and she obviously wasn’t. I know it might not feel that way, but it’s better that she left when she did if she had doubts. It saved you from making a big mistake.”
“Yeah, it did, but when did you get so smart? I thought for sure that when we talked, you were going to try to spin it that I should focus on the good times and that things will look up for me again.”
“Well, they will, but I got so smart because of Scott.” She blushed. “He’s taught me a lot of things.”
I had to work at holding in my laughter at that thought. Scott was just about the most naïve man I’d ever met. He went to college with me, Parker, Reese, Marley, and Josh, and he’d met my sister at a get-together we’d organized while she’d been visiting me in New York. It had been love at first sight for them both, and he’d left the city for Rockdale and my sister without a second thought.
“I’m glad things are going so well with you two,” I said instead of letting her see how amused I was about the fact that she thought he had so much to teach her. “Your feet are still toasty warm, then?”
As if talking about him had summoned him, Scott appeared at the back door just as my sister nodded enthusiastically. He grinned when he saw me sitting with her, and came over to give me a warm hug before I could even stand up or stick my hand out.
“Colt, you’re here!” He unknowingly echoed the exact words Teddy had said to me earlier. “I’m so happy you could come, man. We were worried you might get held up at work. The VPs of international construction conglomerates can’t often take so much time off just because their little sister is getting married.”
While he spoke, he let go of me and went to stand behind Teddy. Then he leaned down to press a sweet kiss to her cheek. When they first told me they’d gotten together, my fucking head had nearly exploded but I’d long since learned to live with it.
It helped to know that he’d do anything for her and that he was genuinely in love with her. “Of course, I’m here. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Lucky for me, this VP of an international construction conglomerate can take as much time off as he wants for this. I can manage the European developments we’re busy with remotely for now and I’ve got a solid team working under me.”
“Well, good. We’re happy to have you.” He grinned, then nudged Teddy and made eye contact with me. “Come to the backyard and see what I got. It’s a potential beauty.”
My sister jumped up and rushed out, and Scott laughed before he followed her. By the time I got out there, they were standing next to a pile of rusty old pipes and looking way too excited about it. He turned to me to explain.
“I found these at a flea market,” he said. “It’ll make the perfect arch and trellis for the wedding. We’re having a bohemian chic theme, so these will work like a charm.”
To me, it looked like a mess. Right, executive-decision time. My sister’s wedding will not become too DIY and tacky.
As a construction mogul now, I didn’t only have millions in the bank, but I also knew how to build things to make them look good. And a bunch of interconnected rusty pipes was not the setting my sister deserved for the moment she said her I-dos.
They were excited, so I didn’t say any of this out loud. Instead, I slung my arms around their shoulders and walked them back toward the house. “That’s great, guys, but I’ve had a vision for your wedding that I’d like to share. Let’s get Scott a glass of lemonade, and I’ll tell you all about it.”
He sent me a sideways glance, but Teddy shrugged and nodded. “I can’t wait to hear what you have in mind.”
Back in the kitchen and with Scott now holding a drink as well, I started sketching out the idea I’d had of a beautiful, outdoor wedding setting with lovely tasteful decorations. “Imagine this. Beautiful lush green gardens. Twinkling lights. A solid stone arch. Waiters circling the guests with canapés on trays and crystal flutes filled with real champagne. We can set up cocktail tables in a bohemian-looking tent to stay true to your theme and we can fill it with freshly cut flowers.”
Teddy was looking starry eyed by the time I was done, but Scott’s brow was furrowed and his knee was bouncing. Fast. “That sounds great and all, but it also sounds expensive. I gave up my dream of making the big bucks when I moved out here, remember? We’re doing okay, but we don’t want to bankrupt ourselves for a wedding. It’d be nice to have something left over for the actual marriage.”
She gave her head an almost imperceptible shake and her eyes focused again when she lifted her gaze back to mine. “We’ve already booked a park just around the corner for the wedding and the reception. As nice as it sounds, we don’t need stone arches or real champagne. We just need some food and an officiant to do the deed. That’s it.”
“Don’t worry about money, guys. Let me take care of it for you. It’s my duty as wedding overseer to make sure everything is perfect, and I am the wedding overseer since I’m walking you down the aisle and Dad isn’t here.”
As I spoke, they looked at each other and exchanged a loaded glance. While I couldn’t hear the silent conversation they were having, it was clear that it was happening. Just to make sure that they knew where I stood on this issue before they made their final decision, I added one last thing. “I’m not taking no for an answer. No matter what you decide on doing for the wedding, I’ll take care of it. Dad wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, and neither do I.”
They both glanced at me. Then Scott released a long, quiet breath and Teddy held my gaze as she nodded. “Okay, we give up, Colt. We’re relenting. You can take care of it, but within reason. This is not going to be a million-dollar wedding.”
Relief rushed through me when she said it. Not only was this really what our parents would’ve wanted and what I wanted, but making over this wedding would give me something to think about other than my heartache.
As long as I focused on the practicalities and not the fact that they were for a wedding, I should be okay. My sister needed this. As much as I knew she would’ve been happy with her park idea too, she deserved to have all her dreams come true. If I could make it happen, I damn well would.
That was what I needed to keep at the front of my mind—my sister and what she needed. I’d been her primary caregiver since before I’d even hit my twenties. I sure as hell wasn’t going to start ignoring my responsibilities now just because I’d been walked out on.
I raised my chin and stuck out my hand to shake on it with her, fixing my gaze on her worried, chocolate brown stare. “You’ve got yourself a deal, little sister. It won’t be a million-dollar wedding, but it’s sure as hell going to look like one.”