1. Misty Vale
T'was the summer of 2013, and all throughout the land- well, if you could equate a parking lot to an entire fairytale kingdom- was filled with dozens of people zooming in and out of the little building that was Misty Vale's one and only train station.
In the midst of the Technological Age, someone had forgotten to scoop this little twentieth century part of West Virginia into the bucket. Misty Vale was a little ways up river from Harper's Ferry, in the middle of Jefferson County. Of course, gone were the days of oil lanterns and hand-pumped water and horses everywhere, but the town was still very much consisting of wide, sprawling farms, the occasional street vendor, and the tiny town square dotted with odd little shops, including the closest thing to a McDonald's, Tee's Eatery.
That was the sight that greeted the eighteen-year old young man as he looked up from his map, his untidy pile of bags almost falling off the back of his Harley-Davidson XL883L 883 Super Low. He'd owned the bike for almost two months. He'd built it with his own hands, paid for all the parts with his college funds- the very action that had landed him here.
Ryder swore under his breath, wiping the sweat from his brow. What kind of town didn't have a Subway, or a McDonald's, or at the very least, a Popeye's? He loved Louisiana-style chicken. He desperately wished for somewhere, anywhere, to cool down and have a bite to eat.
Now, to find whoever Dominique Tulesa was.
He'd heard about his grandmother, sure. He wasn't exactly interested in meeting the woman who had kicked his mother out after she got pregnant with his older brother, Nicholas. Still, it was going to be a lesson, his mother had said. Eileen Joseph was no easy woman. He knew he'd disappointed her, which was why he'd agreed to even go to Misty Vale in the first place.
Now, he wondered what on earth he'd been thinking.
He set his helmet back on, revving up and taking off down the main town street, much to the dismay of the several shoppers traversing the area.
"Watch where you're going, you idiot!"
Ryder chuckled, accelerating even more. If his mother wanted to punish him, well, he was certainly going to enjoy it.
The air was cleaner, he'd give them that. There was something about zooming past acres of farmland with the wind in your face and the sun on your back that just wasn't there in the city. He'd lived in a fairly modest apartment with his mother and brother in downtown Chicago for the last seven or eight years. He'd made friends there, had an entire future set up for him as his high school's star quarterback. Dozens of colleges had offered him sent out scouts, all vying for the chance to have the up-and-coming sports prodigy attend their college.
It would have been easy.
Instead, he'd screwed up. Massively.
Ryder swore again as the road took him into a small but neat neighbourhood of houses that would not have looked out of place in the middle of suburbia. They were stark contrasts to the rest of the little town- some even had fairly new cars.
A boy, well, a man, really, jogged down the steps of one of the houses, dressed in a tight blue shirt and clingy denim jeans, surprisingly stylish for such a quaint town. Ryder removed his helmet with interest, kicking off the bike's engine.
"Hey!" The stranger said, coming closer. Ryder's curiosity got the better of him as he shoved a couple strands of jet black hair out of his eyes.
"You're a bit lost, aren't you?"
He was beautifully structured, lean and tan, with sandy blond, almost brown hair and typical blue eyes. The roped, corded muscles that spanned the other boy's arms and legs gave away his obviously toned and athletic physique. He surveyed Ryder's many bags with interest.
"Motel's that way," he said, motioning his head back the way Ryder had come.
"I'm not lost," Ryder said gruffly. "I'm looking for Miss Tulesa."
"What, she late on her taxes again? Come on, give the old lady a break."
"Do I look like a tax collector?"
"Dude, chill out. I can show you where she lives. Emmett, by the way. Emmett Daniel."
"Ryder Joseph," the dark-haired boy replied nonchalantly.
The blond boy's eyes lit up in excitement.
"Ryder Joseph, as in Ryder Joseph? As in you play for Marquette?"
Ryder shrugged. Marquette High School was one of the highest ranked high school football teams in Chicago. He wasn't surprised Emmett recognized him.
"Dude, I positively hate you."
"I played you earlier this year. We practically got decimated."
Ryder paused, staring at Emmett blankly, before it clicked. He'd almost gotten sent off the field after a particularly brutal tackle, and he'd been pissed.
"That's the game," Ryder shrugged. "You done here?"
"So you're here for the summer?" Emmett asked, as though he hadn't spoken. For a guy who claimed to hate him, Ryder thought he was pretty hell-bent on talking to him.
Ryder didn't reply.
"Nice ride, by the way."
At that, the dark-haired teenager's mouth revealed a cracked smile. If there was anything he loved talking about, it was his bike.
"Thanks." He grudgingly replied, as though it was physically painful to deliver that simple courtesy.
"Come on, I'll give you a ride. Throw the bike in the back."
"The heck, dude? No way."
Emmett jingled the keys to an army green Jeep pickup in his hands.
"What's your deal, Joseph? Don't wanna be seen getting help from your rival?" he asked, rolling his eyes. "The season's over, dude. I pledge no allegiance to anyone till September. I think we can drop the bad blood."
Ryder eyed him skeptically for a minute, then gave in. Obliging, he tossed his bags and then, with Emmett's help, carefully loaded his precious motorcycle into the back of the truck.
"Gosh, is it always this hot?" Ryder asked with a frown as he hopped into the cab next to Emmett, who shrugged.
"You kinda get used to it when you've lived here for eighteen years. Beats a stinking city any day."
There was a brief silence as Emmett swung the truck onto Misty Vale's main street.
"Alright, this is Main Street. Everything's here, including a mechanic and 24-hour tow service. Down there's the grocery store, that's the bakery, whatever. You'll get used to it soon enough."
Ryder sighed. Why had he agreed to this?
Finally, Emmett turned the pickup onto a long winding road that passed through the middle of a cornfield. The corn lay sprawling for acres in all directions, and Ryder was quickly disoriented.
They pulled up outside a large old-style farmhouse with a well-kept garden and old chairs on a wraparound porch. It was a little endearing, really, like something out of an old Western movie. At the side of the house was a garage, now half-opened to reveal a small, greying lady-Dominique Tulesa, cutting straight through a plank of wood with an electric saw. Sparks flew as she blew the dust off the raw edge, sliding the safety goggles above her head.
"This is your stop," said Emmett, opening the truck's tailgate. Ryder pulled his bags out, dropping them on the ground.
Finally, the old lady looked up. A smile took over her face almost immediately, and she put the saw back on the workshop table, dusting her hands off on the apron covering her floral print shirt and blue jeans.
"Emmett! How lovely of you to stop by!"
She embraced the blond-haired boy, who grinned eagerly.
"Hey, Miss T."
Her gaze flickered to Ryder, who stood uncomfortably, like a bug under examination.
"You must be Ryder."
The name slid off her tongue with ease, and for a moment, this woman reminded him terribly of his mother.
"Well, it was nice of Emmett to drop you off. Come, both of you-" she stopped, catching sight of the motorcycle.
"That thing stays outside, understood?"
"We're pretty far from the sea, young man. Hurry up, will you? The ladies are just about ready to serve dinner."
He was too late.
His grandmother put the plank of wood on a shelf along with identical pieces of material before motioning for the two young men to follow her inside. Ryder winced under the dull yellow light of the chandelier on the roof of the foyer area.
"Shoes off," she snapped at Ryder, who stepped back apprehensively. For an old lady, she was surprisingly commanding. He took his shoes off.
One minute, he, Emmett and Miss Tulesa were alone, and the next, they were in the company of seven or so other elderly ladies at a table completely covered in food.
"Ladies," Tulesa greeted them.
Several greetings were exchanged.
"Who's this dashing young man?"
Ryder never wanted to disappear more than he did in that moment. No, he certainly didn't mind female attention. He just didn't want to be doted on by a bunch of old ladies who probably had no teeth of their own left.
"Go ahead, boy. Introduce yourself."
"Ryder." He bit out, before turning to his grandmother. "Can I go to my room now?"
"Certainly not. You haven't properly met the ladies yet."
"Do I want to?" he muttered. Emmett chuckled. "I'll see you around, dude. I gotta go."
Then it was just Ryder, Miss Tulesa, and the old lady society.
"Ladies, this is my grandson Ryder Joseph. You do remember him?"
"Eileen's baby boy? My, he's grown!"
"Aw, he's so big!"
"Isn't he the one with the delivery man father?"
At that, Ryder bit back a collection of choice words handpicked from his arsenal of colourful language. He rarely talked or thought about his father. What was there to talk about? He hadn't spoken to him in years. How could he, when his father had ditched Eileen, Nick and him when he was no more than five or six?
Ryder's father had been of less than desirable character. Branded Misty Vale's bad boy, he'd roamed the streets, charming his way into young girls' hearts, then breaking them. Not only had he been a mere delivery man, but he had spent plenty of time in the local Slammer for petty crimes like pick-pocketing and robbery and vandalism, before getting himself thrown in jail halfway across the country on charges of drug trafficking, assault and armed robbery.
Ryder winced. Chucking his father in his face had always been the most destructive insult. Especially when the only person who truly believed he was destined for something other than a life of crime was his mother.
And he'd disappointed her too.
"Can I please go to my room?"
Ryder's tone was harsher than expected, and his grandmother quickly ushered him and his bags up the stairs. They came to a low-lit hallway with solid oak doors on either side. Miss Tulesa led him to the second door on the right, which opened to a fairly small room with a sloped ceiling and one of those old desk lamps.
On one side of the room stood a small, neatly made bed that barely looked long enough to accommodate Ryder's tall frame. A bookshelf, almost as tall as the ceiling itself, was filled with old paper copies of great novels like Oliver Twist and Anne of Green Gables. The whole space had a comforting, familiar smell to it.
This must've been a girl's room, Ryder decided, going over to the vanity. He sat on the bed, meeting Miss Tulesa's curious stare.
"This was your mother's room," she said with a sad smile, as if rekindling a fond memory.
"My mom slept here?"
"Yes, she did. Go ahead, open the curtains."
He did just that, and was rewarded with a spectacular view. The full moon rose high above the sloping fields of Misty Vale, and in the distance, the lights of the town square were bright and music and cheers could be heard throughout.
"Wonderful, isn't it?"
A cool breeze fanned its way into the room, and Ryder sighed.
He stared out of the open window for a little while longer.
"Well, the bathroom's across the hall. Do you need help with your stuff?"
"Well, in that case, I want you downstairs for dinner in ten minutes."
"I'm not hungry," Ryder lied through his teeth.
"Surely you must be. It's a long ride from Chicago here. How was the train ride?"
"How are train rides supposed to feel?" He bit out, irritated. What was with all the questions?
Miss Tulesa frowned at his attitude.
"Downstairs. Ten minutes."
"I'm not hungry."
"You need to eat."
Ryder, frustrated, got up from the side of the bed.
"No. I don't need to eat. I need you to get out of my space."
"Don't be rude to me, young man."
"Whatever. Can you just....go away? Please?"
His grandmother gave him a disdainful look.
"I'll let this go. Just this once. But you better get your act together real soon, or you'll end up-"
"Like my father?" Ryder scoffed, looking away. "Maybe that's not such a terrible thing."
Miss Tulesa cut herself off, leaving the room. Ryder pulled his shirt off, venting his anger in one almighty throw across the room. It landed in a heap next to the door.
He needed to sleep this off, whatever it was.
Ryder collapsed in the centre of the bed. Before he knew it, he was fast asleep.
The next day, Ryder awoke to the teasing aroma of frying eggs and homemade pancakes, sizzling around in the kitchen downstairs. His stomach ached. Clearly, skipping dinner the night before had not been one of his wisest decisions.
He got up. Padded with bare feet across the unfamiliar hall to the small but tidy bathroom that smelled like lavender and vanilla. Pulling a fresh towel from the old stained-wood cabinet, he stripped down to the waist and stared at his reflection in the mirror on the wall, which remained perfectly intact despite its cracked iron frame.
The face that stared back at Ryder was almost completely unchanged. He still looked exhausted. Dark hair, angular features, chocolate eyes that stared back at him in a mass conflict of emotions. He sighed, pulling off the rest of his clothes and stepping into the shower.
Ryder yelped in surprise as the ice-cold water hit his back with a noisy splash.
A firm knock sounded on the bathroom door, and Miss Tulesa stuck her head in.
"Everything okay in here?"
"The water...it's freezing," the boy chattered out.
"Haven't you ever had a cold bath before?" Miss Tulesa asked, somewhat scornfully. "Why on earth would you want to take a hot shower in the middle of July?"
She shook her head. "Let it run a bit, if you must. It'll warm up eventually. And hurry up, will you? We're having porridge."
Porridge? What is this, the Wild Wild West? Who the hell drinks porridge?
Ryder's thoughts grew louder as his grandmother left, and he slammed the shower off, swear words slipping out of his mouth.
By the time he finally got downstairs, he was dressed in a blue tank top and a loose pair of sweats.
"Goodness! Who are you?!"
A woman shrieked. She was small and slender, like Ryder's mother. She had the same dark hair and eyes, too.
"I should ask you the same thing. What are you doing in Miss Tulesa's house?"
The woman raised an eyebrow, a small smile playing on her lips.
"Mom," she half-yelled, and to Ryder's surprise, his grandmother appeared.
Something wasn't adding up. If his grandmother had answered, that meant...
"My mom...she had a sister?"
The two women stared at him blankly. Ryder snapped, annoyed.
"Well? What the heck is going on here?"
Miss Tulesa shook her head in dismay.
"She never told you? Well, I never..."
"Told me what? That I have an aunt? That I actually have some kind of family? No, she didn't."
Ryder's aunt's eyes softened.
"I knew she was angry," she whispered. "But I never thought she'd keep us away from you, not even in memory."
"What are you talking about?" Ryder demanded.
"She kept you away from us."
Ryder looked down at the floor, trying hard to remember if he'd ever heard his mother mention anything about having a sister. Nothing came to mind. Eileen had never been one to talk much about family, anyway. You, me and Nick. We're a family, she'd say.
"It's not her fault," Ryder snapped. He'd always felt a fierce loyalty to his mother, and she was just as overprotective of him as he was of her. "Maybe you never gave her a reason to mention you."
His grandmother's eyes darkened ever so slightly. "I'd be careful what I say, Ryder Joseph. You're treading in dangerous waters." Her voice was cutting.
"Is that so?"
"Be quiet, boy. You have no idea what you're talking about."
His aunt, picking up on the tension, quickly stepped between them.
"Alright. How about we all just calm down and start again?"
Dominique clenched her fists, biting back a response.
"I'm Felicity," his aunt said with a small smile. She motioned to his grandmother. "You've got to give her a break. She gets a bit...brash sometimes."
Ryder shot her a disdainful look, but to her credit, his aunt didn't flinch. She stared him right back in the eye, till he was the one to finally break eye contact.
"What's all this?" a male voice asked, and a few seconds later, two men joined them in the dining room.
"Hey," Felicity greeted them.
"What's going on? Who is this kid?" The man with the lighter brown hair asked with an air of skepticism.
"I'm not a kid," Ryder said in a clipped voice. His aunt shot him a warning glare, and he rolled his eyes.
"Will, John, I'd like you to meet Ryder. Ryder, the twins, William and Jonathan. They're your uncles, and the youngest of us."
William was tall, dark-haired and brown-eyed- traits Ryder had quickly come to associate with the entire Joseph/Tulesa family. Jonathan, his fraternal twin, had a lighter shade of brown hair, and like his mother, piercing green eyes.
Both pairs of eyes opened wide in recognition.
"You're Eileen's kid? The football prodigy?"John asked, impressed. He held out a hand. "I've seen you play, kid. You've got a gift."
Ryder shrugged, wanting nothing more than to escape this unwanted family reunion. It was already very tense, and he knew he would snap sooner or later. They just had to piss him off enough.
Will, however, stood quietly, observing the situation. He looked the most like Ryder's mother, almost eerily so.
"What are you doing in Misty Vale?" John asked, and that was it. Ryder had had enough.
"It's none of your business. None of you gave a damn about me before, so why now?!" He demanded.
"Ryder!" His grandmother scolded. He raised a hand.
"Don't," he said, not meeting her eyes. "I can't do this right now. Just leave me alone."
With that, he stormed out of the house and into the courtyard. Outside was nice and warm in the summer morning heat.
Perfect time for a ride.
Going over to the old workshop, Ryder pulled the white tarpaulin off of his beloved motorcycle leaned against the outer wall, dusting off the stray leaves.
Ryder had issues.
Everyone knew that. He knew it.
And he didn't care.
He didn't take kindly to surprises. Especially not ones where he found out he'd had an entire family he'd never known about. His mother had never liked to talk about her family. Every time he or his brother had asked questions, she'd simply said "things are complicated". Nothing less, nothing more.
Ryder wondered now if that had been a good thing.
Before he could mount the bike, the garage door rolled up, startling him. William stood beyond it, a plate of food in his hand.
"Saved you some food," he said, walking towards him.
"I'm not hungry."
"Mama says you didn't eat last night. Star player like you needs to keep his strength up."
Will shrugged. "Come on, kid. Sit down. Have something to eat."
Ryder followed William into the garage, propping on a stool as he took the plate from the older man's hands. He looked as though he'd seen better days, but there was a playful light in his brown eyes that soothed Ryder's thoughts.
"Why are you doing this?" He asked his uncle. "Why are you even bothering? You saw how I snapped out there."
Will laughed. "You think you're the first one of us with spunk? I haven't heard anyone snap at Fizzy that way since we were kids."
He offered a hand. "Welcome to the club."
Reluctantly, Ryder shook Will's hand.
"Now eat up. My mama cooks up a right good plate of breakfast. It'd be a shame to let it go to waste."
Now Ryder was stubborn, but if there was one thing he couldn't resist, it was food.
Faster than he thought possible, Ryder scooped the eggs, pancakes and bacon up, not realizing how hungry he had really been. By the time he finished the hash browns, he was full for the first time in days.
Ryder burped, his hands to his mouth.
"Better?" William asked with a grin.
Sighing happily, Ryder nodded.
"I told you so. Now, let's have a look at that beauty of yours, eh?"
Ryder looked at him warily.
"William, are you good with bikes? I don't trust anyone with her unless I'm sure."
His uncle waved him off.
"Please, boy. Call me Will. I've got a degree in Computer Engineering and Mechanics. Did my internship with Harley-Davidson. Everything I know about bikes I learned hands-on."
Ryder was impressed. His uncle didn't look like the biker type.
"So, you bought it used?" Will asked. Ryder shook his head.
"I used to hunt around at different junkyards. Pawn shops. You know. I built it back from just a frame."
His uncle nodded approvingly, inspecting the motorcycle. "It's a fine job," he commented, running his hands over the leather seat. "You sure your future's in football?"
Ryder grimaced. "I don't want to talk about it."
Will shook his head fondly at the young man. "You're just like your mother," he commented. "No doubt about that."
Ryder lifted his head, ignoring Will's gaze.
"My mom. What was she like?"
"Growing up?" Will asked, taking a seat once more. "Oh, Eileen was a stubborn one, she was. John and I are the last, you know, so it was either do what Eily said and risk getting in trouble, or run to Fizzy so she could protect us."
He laughed. "We used to be really close. I was her favourite twin. We did almost everything together." Will's face darkened. "Now I barely hear from her. It's a crap feeling."
The vulnerability left Will's posture, and he shook his head.
"I think that's enough storytelling for one day, kid. Have you checked out the town yet?"
Ryder shook his head. "Not much to see. Everything's so tiny and quiet."
"I know. It can be a shock sometimes."
"You're not from around here?"
Will chuckled, shaking his head.
"Sure, I was raised here, but I live in New York. I'm middle level at the local RAM Trucks up there." Ryder nodded. "Oh."
"What about you, Ryder Joseph? Where'd Eileen take off to?"
"Chicago, born and raised," Ryder muttered.
"Chicago, eh? And what does she do now? Still cashiering at Walmart?"
Ryder felt offended, even though the question had not been asked with any kind of malice intended.
"She's a marketing assistant," said Ryder. "I guess you'd know that if you bothered to stay in touch."
"Hey." Will quickly rebutted. "Me and your mom, it's a long story. Don't jump to conclusions."
Ryder stood up, the mood ruined. "I'm gonna head out."
"Give us a chance, kid. Come on. How about you and I head into town and help the others set up for tonight?"
"The Misty Vale Women's Society has an annual three-day carnival every 4th of July. Tonight's the opening night. Gonna have something like an open talent show. Lots of food."
Ryder considered his options. He could stay here at the farmhouse, and probably be assigned some ridiculous house chore, or he could go with Will, who, to his surprise, he actually didn't mind.
"Okay," he finally said. "I'll go."
William grinned, smacking his back hard.
"Now that's the spirit!"
Ryder found himself laughing along.
Maybe he could give them a chance after all.
Audrey Greslin, soon-to-be Mrs. Derek Daniel, liked to think she was absolutely beautiful- flawless, even. With her smooth, long, tan legs, flat stomach, delicate yet slender curves, and a more than modest bosom, one would not doubt her. She had stunning blue eyes, and blonde hair that fell almost to her waist.
Today, it was pinned into a half-updo, and her already pretty features were highlighted with a light coat of makeup.
Audrey let out a sigh of annoyance as the housemaid Lorraine put the final touches on her floor-length gown. It was a soft baby blue thing, strewn with gems and pearls which lightly touched the ground when she walked. She wore a pair of six-inch silver heels, matching her silver accessories.
"So? What do you think?"
Lorraine bowed her head respectfully.
"It's lovely," she said. Audrey frowned.
"Not the dress, Lorraine. Me! How do I look?"
The maid rolled her eyes, wiping a bit of sweat off her forehead.
"Absolutely stunning, if I do say so myself."
Audrey smirked, shoving her way past the other woman. Her engagement party was going to be splendid. Absolutely splendid.
Invitations had been sent out, catering organized. The party was set to take place downstairs in the main area of Derek Daniel's two-million dollar Los Angeles home.
As for the wedding? Audrey was beyond the planning stage. In her opinion, she and Derek were already married, and all they needed was a fabulous wedding ceremony to top it all off. She'd already been to the second fitting of her twenty-five thousand-dollar wedding dress.
"Derek!" Audrey yelled, pushing her blonde curls out of her face.
Derek Daniel was a handsome man, for forty-three. He had just a hint of greying hair at the otherwise brown roots, slight wrinkles from too many days of hard work, but he was incredibly good-looking, with his blue eyes and strong, angular frame. Derek stood at just over six feet, and now, dressed in a pair of tan slacks and a white dress shirt that was open at the collar, he greatly resembled his eldest son, Elliott.
"Wow," he breathed out, his voice warm with desire. Audrey batted her eyes, taking his arm. He automatically pulled her close.
"How does it look?"
"You look amazing," he whispered, kissing her cheek. "Absolutely breathtaking."
"You don't look half bad yourself," Audrey commented, and Derek grinned.
He remembered quite vividly the first time he'd laid eyes on Audrey Greslin. She'd been twenty-six then, two years before. Derek had been attending a business partner's birthday celebration, and he'd been introduced to her by her brother, Alan, another one of Derek's business associates.
He still remembered her, her eyes blue against the cream of her lace dress, the very picture of sophistication.
Naturally, he was rich, although Derek himself cared very little for money. Before Audrey, before the house in Los Angeles, he had spent almost all of his life in Misty Vale, West Virginia, with his first wife, Charlotte, and their three children, in a comfortable but modest home.
All that changed after their divorce ten years before. They'd been happy, sure, but the fire that had spanned the first few years of their marriage had died down. Without that spark, Derek had absorbed himself in his work, failing to notice his deteriorating relationship with his wife until it was too late.
The entire period had been tense. Their children, the oldest of whom had just turned ten, had seemed oblivious, but were very much aware of the rift in what had seemed to be the perfect couple. Needless to say, Derek's relationship with his kids, especially Elliott, had never been the same.
With Audrey in the picture, things had gone from bad to worse. The three children harboured something worse than the usual dislike for a potential stepmother- probably because Audrey was young enough to be their sister- but Derek loved her. At least, he believed he did.
Looking into her eyes, as he did now, any remaining semblance of doubt faded from his mind. Audrey had become more than just a fling- he wanted this, he wanted her. More than money. Almost more than he'd ever wanted Charlotte.
"Ready to go?" he asked, with a light peck of Audrey's lips. She sent him a flirty smile.
"I'm always ready," she replied, and pulled him out of the room after her.
Levi Daniel looked up as his older brother, Derek, descended the stairs with his new fiancée on his arm. They were immediately the centre of attention in the room, and Rachel, Levi's teenage daughter, tapped his arm excitedly.
"Look, Dad! It's gorgeous, isn't it? Audrey's dress...it's beautiful!"
Levi already knew what the whole impromptu celebration was about. Derek wasn't a party person- he certainly didn't host them himself, either. His brothers Levi and Donovan, and a couple of close friends were the only ones on his side who Derek had made aware of his engagement. Heck, he hadn't even told Charlotte or his kids yet.
Donovan, on service with the U.S. Navy in the Gulf of Mexico, had respectfully declined the invitation, so Levi was attending on both of their behalfs. Levi's wife, Melissa, stood about ten feet away, sipping from a glass of wine, a smile on her face. He stared a bit at her, entranced by the way her smile crinkled up the corners of her eyes. She was beautiful, no doubt.
Turning his attention back to the guests-of-honour, Levi saw Derek clap his hands, and Audrey rapping on a wine glass with a spoon.
The room gradually fell silent, all eyes on the two people on the stairs.
Derek gave a gracious nod.
"Goodnight, everyone. My dearest friends, colleagues, family- it is my honour to once again welcome you to my home. I'm sure you're all wondering what the special occasion is, and that, my dear friends, is this."
Derek took Audrey's hand in his, turning her slightly more towards the guests.
"Two, almost three years ago, Alan Greslin introduced me to his younger sister. Little did I know, that day would grow to be one of the best days of my life."
He motioned to Audrey, who stood smiling sweetly at his side.
"Time has passed, and ever since I first compelled Audrey to go on a date with me, she's become so much more than just a woman. This woman has been my everything- lover, friend, confidante, and I am immensely- extremely proud to say that I adore her.
I was thinking about it over the last couple of weeks, you know. I sat there thinking, 'what happens if I let her go?' And then I realized that I don't want to lose this woman. This incredibly beautiful, talented woman I get to call mine. That's why two weeks ago, as some of you may know, I begged Audrey to let me spend the rest of my life with her."
Derek looked adoringly into his fiancée's eyes. Levi barely missed the slight furrow of Audrey's eyebrows, as she unknowingly tensed, hesitant.
Then with a brilliant smile, she kissed Derek on the cheek, and turned back to the guests.
"I said yes. I mean, how could I say no? Derek is everything a woman could ask for," she said, beaming.
Levi wanted to hurl.
"I called you all here today, so we can all celebrate this milestone together. I get to make this amazing woman my wife, and spend the rest of my life with her. And who knows, maybe in a year or two, we'll have little Dereks and Audreys," Derek continued with a chuckle. Audrey turned white, the colour draining from her face.
Luckily for her, the guests broke out into chatter and applause, leaving them free to mingle. A live band kicked up, playing a soft jazzy tune.
Derek excused himself, heading over to Levi and Rachel, who was taking a fruit and cheese kebab from one of the more handsome servers. She winked, earning herself a massive smile.
"I think he likes me, Dad," she chuckled. Levi laughed. "Chill out, little birdie."
"Uncle Derek!" she shrieked, pulling him into a hug. "Congratulations! You didn't tell us you were getting married!"
"I know, I know. I wanted to surprise you guys," Derek replied, facing his brother.
"She's over there, why don't you go ask her?"
Simply put, Levi and Derek didn't exactly have a good brotherly relationship. For years, it had been Derek and Donovan, then Donovan and Levi. Derek had never been close to his youngest brother, and they had grown even further apart after Donovan joined the Navy.
Derek smiled to himself.
"Same old Levi, huh?"
He looked over at Rachel.
"Rachel, why don't you go see if there are any more hot waiters left?"
She grinned, sashaying into the crowd.
"She's sixteen, Derek." Levi bit out.
"Aw, she'll be fine. Let's you and I have a talk, shall we?"
Derek led his brother outside onto a balcony overlooking the garden that completely surrounded his house.
"You didn't sound very happy to hear about the engagement," Derek commented, sipping his wine.
"What do you care what I think?"
"Derek, leave it. I just hope you know what you're doing."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Derek, you barely know this woman."
"I've loved her for two years!"
"And you and Charlotte were together almost four years before you got married. Don't you think you're rushing things?"
"Is that everyone's problem? The fact that I'm remarrying after Charlotte? She's my ex, Levi. I can't be tied down my whole life."
"Look me in my eyes."
"Derek, look me in my eyes, and tell me that you don't love Charlotte."
Levi's voice was cold and hard. Derek met his eyes, preparing to speak.
"I can't do it."
Defeated, Derek gulped the rest of his wine down.
"What was the point, huh, Levi? I love Audrey. So what if I still have feelings for Charlotte? We divorced. We went our seperate ways. I want to do this, Levi. I want to spend the rest of my life with Audrey."
"You can't give her your all if half of you is still hung up on your ex-wife. I see the way that woman looks at you, Derek. She wants only one thing, and it's not your heart."
Derek ran his hands through his hair.
"Audrey loves me."
"You know, for a grown man, you're ridiculously oblivious."
"Kicking me out, big brother? Not so happy with the truth, are we?"
"I made a choice."
Levi walked away, his words a bitter murmur.
"You're making a mistake."