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Doppelbanger: Chapter 39

JEFFREY

TEARS BUILD IN my eyes as I stand off to the side, watching the stylist add the final touches to her hair and makeup. When she pins the tiara in place, my breath catches in my throat. She’s literally the most beautiful bride I’ve ever seen. Her dress is fit for a queen, made of silk and lace, with tulle underneath to give her the full skirt she’s always wanted. After stepping into her silver, strappy pumps and taking a moment to admire herself in the floor-length mirror, she reaches out for my hand. I close my fingers around hers, lifting them as I bend to place a kiss on her knuckles before leading my princess out to the backyard where the ceremony is to take place.

No detail has been spared. White wood chairs line both sides of the pink petal-covered aisle. The trellis is dripping with baby’s breath and expertly placed pink roses. All of our family and loved ones are gathered, dressed to the nines, to celebrate this special occasion. It would be so easy to focus on the pain surrounding this day, but I will always associate November twenty-fifth not with what we lost, but with the birth of this beautiful angel standing beside me.

When the music starts up and our eyes lock, my heart skips a beat. This little girl is joy personified. There is nothing in this world I wouldn’t do for her.

“You ready?” I ask, squeezing her hand. She nods, and as I walk her down the aisle preparing to give her away, I become overwrought with emotion. That is until I see the sheer horror on the face of her groom. That little shit.

When we’re mere feet away and I finally catch his attention. I rub the thumb and forefinger of my free hand together, signing a reminder of the fifty bucks I had to promise this kid to marry my daughter. That’s okay. In another fifteen to twenty years, he’ll be begging for her hand, and I’ll get my revenge.

I place her hand into his and lean in close. “To get the money, you have to pretend to want to marry her, Kyle,” I warn. Instantly his face perks up.

Throughout the ceremony he holds a smile so big, I think his face may split in two. He really wants that money.

“And now,” my brother Victor, who is acting as officiant, says as he adjusts his tie, trying not to laugh. “You may kiss the bride.”

Willow’s eyes flutter closed as she leans in, puckering her little lips. Savage arches his back trying to get away. Then, he shoves a finger down his throat with an exaggerated gag, and the crowd erupts into a chorus of giggles.

“I’m waiting, Tyle…” she says, still holding her practiced position.

A panic washes over me. I didn’t come this far to have her dream wedding ruined. Grabbing a hundred-dollar bill from my wallet, I rush to the altar, holding it out in front of his face. I point to my cheek and pucker my lips. That little shit nods and holds his hand out, palm up. Evidently a kiss requires prepayment. After tucking the bill into his palm, I rush back to my seat beside the woman I love. The woman who spent weeks preparing this special day for my baby girl.

Kyle shoves the money into his pocket then leans in, planting a quick peck to the side of her face before rubbing his lips on the sleeve of his tux jacket. “Bleh!”

The smile on Willow’s face is everything. For a moment I catch myself wishing that Jessica could be here to see how happy our baby girl is. I know she’d be proud. I don’t always get it right, but this time…this time I know that I did.

“She sees,” Tink says, reading my expression perfectly. I don’t know how she knows me so well, at times even better than I know myself.

She rests her hand on my thigh, and I lay mine on top of hers, squeezing affectionately when Victor announces, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

A three-tier wedding cake is brought out on a linen-covered table by Lake and Landon with four sparklers lit on the top. Willow blushes a deep crimson when everyone joins in singing the happy birthday song.

Gina kisses my cheek then rushes over to the table to cut the cake. The first plate goes to the birthday girl. The second to her new husband. When Kyle lifts a hunk of cake to his mouth, Willow shouts, “Stop!”

“What’re you screaming about now?”

“You have to feed me, Tyle, and I have to feed you. Don’t you know anyting?”

Kyle’s face screws up in confusion. “CEO! Deal with your daughter. I’m hungry.”

“Boy! I just paid your ass a hundred dollars to marry Willow. You can damn sure feed her a bite of cake.”

“Ooooh, Daddy, you saided a sentence hancer.” Willow’s eyes grow big and round with shock, and Kyle snickers beside her.

“Sorry, your husband’s language is rubbing off on me,” I tease.

After cake, Cooper starts up the music he’s prepared, and Kyle fulfills his duty, giving Willow the obligatory first dance as man and wife.

“Tale as Old as Time,” from the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack—Willow’s current obsession—starts up, and the miniature bride and groom walk out to the center of the patio. They join hands, keeping a wide birth between them. While they spin around the makeshift dancefloor, Gina and Spencer snap photos from every angle, instructing them when to smile, where to look, when to spin.

I can’t stop smiling at the two women fawning all over my little girl. She may no longer have a mother living on earth, but I’m so thankful for these two who’ve stepped in to fill that void in her life. Moving here, while I’ll admit was a bit crazy and spontaneous, turned out to be the best thing for us all.

“Tank you, Daddy,” Willow squeals, running with her arms spread wide when their dance has ended. “This was the bestest birthday ever!”

“You’re welcome, princess. I’m so happy you loved it. But, you need to go thank your Gigi and Spence. They did all the work. Daddy just wrote the checks.” I explain as my eyes lock with Tink’s across the room. She nibbles on her lower lip, giving me a sexy little wink.

“What’s a sheck?” Willow asks, cupping my cheeks and turning my face back to hers.

“Money, Willow. Checks are money.”

“Well, den…” Her little lips plant a kiss right in the center of my forehead. “Tank you for your moneys.”

Laughing, I set her back down on the floor. “My pleasure. Now go thank the real MVPs.” I motion to Spence and Gina, finding she’s still staring my way.

“What’s a MPP?”

“Just go say thank you, Willow!” This girl can be so exasperating at times.

Once the party begins to wind down, the big kids take the littles inside to watch a movie, and the adults break out the karaoke machine. I wait until everyone’s had a few rounds of drinks and butchered a song or two before breaking out the guitar and giving Tink a little gift of her own.

“You play guitar?” she asks, wide-eyed and grinning ear to ear as I strum the beginning chords to “In Case You Didn’t Know,” by Brett Young.

Every word that I sing is a message to this beautiful woman staring back at me, who’s managed to become the beat of my heart in such a short amount of time. It’s my every feeling professed in front of our friends and family. My heart laid bare.

Before I’ve even set the guitar down, she’s in my arms. Her hands grip my hair, and Tink pulls my mouth to hers, whispering, “I’m crazy ’bout you too, Jeff Ryan.” Then, our lips connect and fireworks explode around us.

Or, you know, it could just be the sound of our idiotic friends clapping and howling.


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