January in Australia is too hot for a wedding. Even with the piles of sunscreen I slathered on, or maybe because of them, I’m melting out of my turquoise coloured bridesmaid’s dress. And I’m burning despite the SPF 50+ I’d applied earlier. Cursed with strawberry blonde hair, fair skin, and freckles, I’m no match for the summer sun.
Still, at least I’m not wearing a tuxedo, unlike my soon-to-be stepbrothers.
Ethan and Asher Cassidy are clearly perspiring in the heat, yet both boys still look more handsome than they have any right to. Ethan with his light brown hair, light blue eyes, and lop-sided smile has never had any trouble making my stomach flip and my heart squeeze. And Asher, with his black hair cut shorter and neater than I’ve ever seen it, his high cheekbones, dark eyes and sneer, might be the devil, but even I can admit that evil has never looked so good.
As if sensing my gaze, Asher looks away from the nuptials in progress to scowl at me. Deciding not to provoke the beast by making a face back at him, I clutch the two bouquets in my hand a little tighter before turning back to finish watching my mother marry the man of her dreams.
“Will you, Caitlin Maree Kelly, take Jesse James Cassidy to be your lawfully wedded husband?”
All morning, I’ve fought to keep the tears at bay, but the catch in my mother’s voice as she says those words, weighted so heavily with significance, makes it impossible to hold them back any longer.
“And will you, Jesse James Cassidy, take Caitlin Maree Kelly to be your lawfully wedded wife?”
“I now pronounce you husband and wife. Jesse, you may kiss your bride.”
I swipe at my eyes as the tears come harder and faster now, Jesse sweeping my mother off her feet in a Hollywood style kiss that befits their epic love story. I whoop and cheer along with everyone except Asher, whose pathetic golf clap is more mocking than anything else.
“It gives me great joy to present you with, Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Cassidy!”
Mum looks every bit the radiant bride as she turns to me, arms out. I quickly put my hands up to stop her from embracing me.
“I’ll hug you after I’ve cleaned my face,” I sniffle, passing back her bridal bouquet. “I don’t want to stain your gorgeous dress.”
She giggles, sounding happier and more light-hearted than I’ve heard her in years.
“I can’t believe it, Lilah, I’m actually married.”
“And to a rock star at that.”
“Retired rock star.”
“He’s rock ‘n’ roll royalty, so it’s still a fairy tale.”
Mum squeezes my hand, smiling at me, her emotions swimming in her eyes.
“Thank you. You are the best daughter and maid-of-honour anyone could ask for.”
“I am, and you owe me for this,” I agree.
We share a look of understanding. Today I gain a stepdad and two stepbrothers. One of those stepbrothers, Ethan Cassidy, broke my heart, and the other, Asher, hates me with a passion I return tenfold.
“Lilah, you look nearly as stunning as your mother today.”
Jesse ends the moment between my mother and me by picking me up and hugging me before I can protest.
When Jesse releases me, I beam up at him. “Congratulations, Jesse. Or should I say, Stepdad?”
Asher snorts loudly, but Jesse’s smile makes the endearment worth it. No matter how complicated or painful my life is about to become because of our newly blended family, the title Stepdad is one I’m happy to hand him.
“I know this’ll be a big adjustment for you, Ethan, and Asher, but I want us to be a family. A real one.”
Asher laughs coldly.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
Jesse turns to face his son. His voice is soft enough not to carry but holds the hint of steel I’ve heard him use on Asher often enough.
“Remember what we discussed.”
“I made it through the ceremony, didn’t I? Pretending we’re one giant happy family was never part of the deal.”
Asher steps down from the podium we’re standing on.
Jesse’s shout falls on deaf ears. Asher walks away from us, clearly not caring that he’s supposed to walk back down the aisle with Ethan and me.
My arsehole stepbrother, ladies and gentlemen. If the way he’s always treated me before now hadn’t been enough to convince me I hate Asher Cassidy, this moment would. He doesn’t care about ruining the day for his father and my mother. He doesn’t care that everyone who matters in Rockstar Bay is here watching us. Or that the press will have a field day with his antics. Come tomorrow, the headlines won’t reflect how sentimental and sweet the cliffside ceremony that has just taken place has been. No, they’ll centre around the unhappy son who has reunited with his father only four years ago.
Ethan shakes his head, glaring at his brother, while Jesse stares after his son, his dark eyes disappointed, angry and sad all at once.
I wish for laser-beam eyes so that I can kill Asher from where I stand.
“He’ll get over it.”
My mother pastes a smile on her face and runs her hand over Jesse’s chest.
“He just needs some time.”
Ethan’s blue-eyed gaze meets mine. Both of us know that Asher will never welcome my mother with open arms.
Jesse is smiling down at my mother and nodding when I look back at the newlyweds. The look of love they share pushes thoughts of Asher’s selfishness out of my head. And I feel my spirits lift as starlet Maddison Taylor begins to sing her rendition of the Corrs’ “Love to Love you” – my mother’s favourite song. Jesse and my mother begin the recessional walk down the aisle, and as I watch my mother smile and accept the well wishes of those who reach out to her, I relax further.
Ethan smiles at me and offers me his elbow.
I nod as I slip my arm through his. “Let’s.”
This is one upside of Asher stomping off like a petulant child. Instead of walking down the aisle with one brother on each side of me, I only have to contend with Ethan. Ethan might be the Cassidy brother who broke my heart last year, but I’ll take him over Asher any day.
As we slowly follow our parents down the aisle, I feel Ethan’s gaze on me. My heart contracts, and my stomach tightens as he continues to watch me as we walk. It takes every inch of my willpower not to turn and look at him.
Finally, he lowers his head and whispers:
“You look beautiful today.”
I shouldn’t enjoy his compliment so much, but pleasure splashes through me, sending heat cascading up my neck and into my cheeks. Giving in to the urge, I look at him.
“Thank you, so do you. Look handsome, I mean.”
I force myself to look forward and smile at the guests waving to us.
“I know it sucks that things didn’t work out between us, but I guess you’re relieved now, huh?”
My throat tightens over the lump of emotion in my throat. “What makes you say that?”
“I just mean, now that we’re stepsiblings, it would be weird if we were still dating. Don’t you think?”
“I guess,” I say quietly. “It wouldn’t be illegal, though.” And hardly the taboo subject some people try and make it out to be. After all, we were dating before my mum and Jesse even knew each other.
“Not illegal, no. But still weird.”
Is he trying to convince me or himself?
Ainsley, Ethan’s girlfriend, throws herself at Ethan the moment we get to the end of the aisle, forcing Ethan to let go of me.
Of course, Asher picks that moment to rear his aggravating head. The evil smirk he aims at me tells me he’s enjoying my discomfort over Ainsley and Ethan’s ‘reunion’.
I had hoped Asher stormed off and fell into a blackhole somewhere, but I’m not that lucky. In the short time between his tantrum and now, he’s ditched his jacket and tie. The top buttons of his shirt are open, and he’s rolled his sleeves up his tanned forearms, revealing some of the ink he had done last year. There is something predatory and unrestrained about Asher at the best of times, and with his tattoos showing, it is a reminder that as good as he looks in a tuxedo, he doesn’t belong in one.
Catching me looking at him and no doubt seeing the judgement in my eyes, he raises an eyebrow, daring me to say something.
Refusing to take the bait, I look around the picturesque grounds of the Lightning Bay Hotel. Lightning Bay is what the town used to be called before the mayor changed it to Rockstar Bay in order to boost tourism. Hundreds of wedding guests stand between the reception room, which is already open, and myself. Mum and Jesse are surrounded by a mob of well-wishers and will probably be busy for some time. I need to hunt down my best friend Kennedy, who is somewhere around, and leave Asher, Ainsley and Ethan to occupy themselves.
Before I can step away, Ethan reaches out, taking my hand.
“Hey, are we taking pictures now?”
Ethan’s blue eyes search mine, his expression full of apology as his hand squeezes mine.
His other arm is draped over Ainsley’s shoulders, but it drops the moment I stare at it, causing Ainsley to pout. If anyone should be pouting, it’s me. I hate seeing him and Ainsley together and Ethan knows that. Reluctantly, I withdraw my hand from Ethan’s grasp.
“I’m not appearing in any photos.”
Ethan shoots him a warning look.
“You promised Dad.”
“I promised him I would fulfil my best man duties.”
“Which includes photos, idiot,” I mutter.
Asher swings his dark gaze to meet mine, making me regret opening my mouth.
Telling Asher he must do something is tantamount to waving a flag in front of a bull. Doubly so if I’m the one who says it. What I should say is: go jump off the cliff and stay the hell out of the family photos. Unfortunately, his absence would upset both Jesse and my mother, and I don’t want him ruining the day for them more than he already has.
Asher’s sneer returns.
“I don’t need precious memories of our father marrying a gold-digging.”
Ethan cuts him off, standing straighter and shooting daggers at Asher.
Asher doesn’t look at his brother. His narrowed eyes hold mine so that we can wage a silent battle of wills. He knows from experience that insulting my mother is the fastest way to hurt me. Now, he is clearly waiting for me to bite back, but I won’t give him the satisfaction. Nor will I give him one more reason not to be in the photos. Unlike him, I’m able to put our parents’ wishes first.
“You have to be in the photos unless you want Dad to take your guitar and ground you.”
Asher grinds his teeth together.
“I’d like to see him try.”
“Why? You made the deal with him. As Lilah said, photos are part of your duty. Just suck it up already.”
Finally, Asher turns his glare from me to his brother. I take in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Going head to head with Asher is always intense, even more so when I have to bite my tongue.
Kennedy is known for appearing out of thin air, or apparating, as we like to joke because of her obsession with Harry Potter, but I don’t think I have ever appreciated her talent as much as I do right now. She hugs me before I can warn her not to, reminding me that I really need to check whether my make-up is all over my face. I probably look like a panda.
She gushes, pulling back and scrutinizing me.
“You look freaking amazing, Lilah.”
“No,” I say. “That would be you.”
Kennedy stands back and twirls in the gorgeous short light purple dress she is wearing, causing the skirt part of the dress to flare around her. Her golden hair hangs in glorious waves down her back, purple flowers threaded through it, and she is wearing makeup that accentuates her violet eyes and pretty face.
Realising that we aren’t alone, Kennedy looks at Ethan.
“Oh, hi, Ethan.”
She lets her gaze wander up and down his body.
“You scrubbed up okay. Thank god, you’re usually hideous.”
He throws his head back and laughs, and she reluctantly smiles back at him.
Kennedy glances at Asher and Ainsley but says nothing to them, which is Kennedy’s version of politeness. If they hadn’t been standing there, she would have referred to them as The Arsehole Brother and Bitch Face. Not exactly imaginative, but loyal, nonetheless.
Kennedy’s eyes hold a hint of mischief as she returns her attention to me.
“So. I want to introduce you to a couple of people. Two totally gorgeous guys were sitting behind me during the ceremony, and they asked to meet you when I told them you were my friend.”
Ethan looks around, his fists clenching by his sides.
“Who are they?”
“Blind idiots, obviously.”
I flip Asher the bird after he turns to look over his shoulder for something.
Ethan continues looking around.
“They could be reporters.”
“It’s not like she can ruin the family name more than her mother already has.”
Ethan glares at his brother.
“I told you to knock that shit off.”
I’m already baking in the sun, but anger pushes my temperature up to boiling point. I don’t want to cause a scene. Today is supposed to be about our parents, but Asher is going to keep pushing my buttons until I push back. I just hope I can wait until the wedding is over, then I’ll give it to him with both barrels.
“They’re not reporters, Ethan.”
Kennedy’s voice is smooth, her eyes twinkling, her smile coy.
“Actually, I think they’re your cousins.”
For some reason, that makes Ethan glare at me.
“You don’t have my permission to date family members.”
Even if I were offered a million dollars, I wouldn’t date another Cassidy. But Ethan’s territorial comment zaps right up my spine, making me stand taller.
“You think you get a say over who I date?”
“Of course I do, I’m your friend, and now I’m your stepbrother.”
As much as I do love the fact his comment makes Ainsley look so pissy, I want to strangle him for it. He’s desperate to stay friends because it gives him the opportunity to scare other guys away from me. He broke my heart and then started dating Ainsley, but he doesn’t want me dating anybody else. It is. Infuriating.
I look pointedly at Ainsley. “Then I should get a say in who you date.”
“We’re already together. It’s too late.”
Kennedy takes my arm, leading me away.
“Hey, you can’t leave yet. We have to take photos.”
We ignore Ethan and keep walking.
“Were you serious about the guys, or were you just providing my escape route?” I ask.
Linking my arm through hers, I shepherd her towards the closest bathroom. I’m sure I remember seeing one in the reception hall I passed earlier, and I’m not meeting anyone without cleaning my face first.
Kennedy’s grin is full of mischief as she looks at me.
“Yes, and they’re hotter than Hades, but they aren’t cousins of the Cassidys. Did you see the look on Ethan’s face, though? Totally worth it.”
I laugh, amused by how happy she sounds. Kennedy and Ethan were good friends while Ethan and I dated. After we broke up, she tried hard to hate him. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so angry with anyone. After I gave up trying to ignore him, however, she followed suit.
“He’s still totally into you. It was written all over his face during the service. And the way he looked at you while Ainsley was right next to him?”
My laughter dies. Even if she’s right, it doesn’t matter now. Ethan and I are done. I still love him. Maybe I’m still even a little bit in love with him. But I will never take him back.
It took me a long time to crawl out of the pit of despair I fell into after our breakup, and I have no faith it would end differently if we tried again. Ethan is always going to choose his brother and his band over me. And while I understand that family is everything, and that music is his life. Because it is mine too. I don’t want to be with someone who has allowed himself to be pushed into making that choice.
I don’t want to be with a guy who lets his brother dictate who he can and can’t date. So, bring on Kennedy’s hot new friends.