They say your wedding day is the beginning of your happily ever after.
But I’m pretty sure they never stood on a sweltering Florida beach getting ready to promise forever… only to change their mind at the last minute and be assaulted by a crustacean while fleeing the scene.
Once upon a time, I was a respected Navy officer. A guy who made a career out of managing chaos.
Now, I am the chaos, a groom on the run from my ex-fiancé and his dad’s goons. Oh, and the guy driving the getaway car? That would be my ex-boyfriend, Jett.
Gorgeous. Brilliant. A guy I couldn’t help falling in love with twelve years ago.
The guy I realize I’ve always loved.
Did I mention he’s also a famous rock star on a sold-out summer tour?
This situation has disaster written all over it. But if I can manage the chaos, maybe I’ll get my happy ending after all.
I hated crustaceans.
It wasn’t a phobia. I just hated them. Everything about them. Their tiny, soulless black eyes, pointy legs, and jointed appendages. The way they scurried around with their creepy little feelers and pinchy pinchers. Oh, man. Just the thought made me gag.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this. Why am I doing this?” How many times had I asked the same question? This was insane. I should have seen this coming. Why hadn’t I seen this coming? When the thought of doing a thing made you feel nauseated, it was a pretty good indicator that you shouldn’t do the thing.
My best friend since high school, Kayden, smiled sympathetically. The guy deserved to have a street named after him for his patience in dealing with me through this mess.
“Because you love your fiancé?” Kayden didn’t sound too convinced. Another red flag.
Did I say that?
Well, that wasn’t a good sign.
Especially when said fiancé stood at the altar waiting for me. I should’ve felt bad, terrible, I should have, except I stood in a tent on the beach in August, in Florida, wearing a suit made of seashells. That’s right. Seashells.
The little bastards were individually sewn onto the itchiest, most uncomfortable fabric known to man, made a horrible crunching sound every time I moved, and weighed far more than I expected a thousand—or however many—little shells to weigh. If I ever met this torture device’s designer, I would kick their ass. Or offer a very strongly worded email. Zero stars. Would not recommend.
When I’d tried to talk some sense into my fiancé, he’d accused me of being selfish and single-handedly attempting to destroy his big day. The last time I checked, at least two people were needed to form a marriage, though if Skipper could marry himself, he probably would. I’m sure someone in Florida already had, and hey, no judgment here, that was between them and whatever deity they worshipped.
There was dramatic, and then there was Skipper. No, that wasn’t a nickname, and yes, I should have known better than to get involved with Skipper Woodman. Speaking of….
“What’s he doing?” Why did I ask? It’s not like I didn’t know.
Kayden peeked out from the tent flap. “Looks like he’s on social media again. Is he making a video? Yep. He’s streaming a video at the altar. Classy.”
I groaned and ran a hand through my hair. “Perfect. Because his followers need another reason to hate me.”
Skip was an artist, his work centering around—wait for it…the beach. He was a boxed-water-drinking snob whose favorite line was, “Nice try, Hunty,” while pretending to be poor despite living off daddy’s millions.
Sweet Steven Tyler, what the hell was I doing? I loved Skip. That’s why I agreed to marry him, right? Wait, that shouldn’t be a question. I did love him, didn’t I? Damn, another question. Skip wasn’t that bad. The guy was crazy about me. There was the time he—no, wait, what about the time he…Nope. Uh, okay, but then there was the time he…Hm. It had to be the heat messing with my memory.
“They wouldn’t hate you if they knew the truth,” Kayden grumbled. He wiped the sweat from his brow. “Fuck, why does this overgrown swampland have to be so fucking hot?”
Yet another question I had no answer for. I was on a roll today. Kayden had made his feelings about Skip known from the beginning, but like a good friend, he supported me. Like most people in my life, he was not a fan of the Skipper.
“All he does is bitch about you on social media.” Kayden grabbed one of the wedding favor fans off the table. He stared at the shells on it, shrugged, then fanned himself. One of the tiny shells flew off and smacked him in the eye. “Shit!”
Wonderful. Because nothing made a wedding memorable like physically assaulting your guests with wedding favors. Kayden ripped the shells off and continued to fan himself, which I would have found hilarious at any other time considering how tiny that fan was and how huge Kayden was. The guy could give Captain America a run for his money—if Captain America had traded his shield in for a yoga studio.
“I didn’t see him making a video when you stayed up all night taking care of him after he got food poisoning, which, by the way, would have been avoided if he’d listened to you and not eaten the vending machine tofurky. Who the hell puts tofu anything in a vending machine?”
“What about when you ran out of that meeting because he called you with an emergency, only for you to get to his condo and find out the emergency was that he’d run out of hair product and couldn’t be seen in public like that?”
That was also true. Not a good day for me. We’d lost a client thanks to Skip’s nonsense. As an acquisitions consultant for an engineering firm that held Defense contracts, my boss was not impressed.
“But that’s why I’m doing this.” I motioned to the suit I wore. “Because I love him?”
Kayden eyed me. “Are you asking me or telling me?”
It took me longer than it should have to answer.
Maybe? Or was I asking? Shit. Why was I such a hot mess? More importantly, why was I surprised?
Things with Skip had been complicated since we got together a year ago. We’d been on and off so many times that I’d lost count. The only thing that outnumbered the times he’d broken up with me was the number of V-neck tees and Panama hats he had in his closet. Instead of taking that as a sign and walking away while I could, I’d let him suck me back in. Literally. More often than not, a blowjob was involved. I had problems. Serious problems.
“Maybe you’re just getting cold feet.”
“I don’t get cold feet,” I grumbled. I’d been in the Navy for crying out loud. My entire military career centered around fixing problems and working through high-pressure situations. I could get anything, anywhere, at any time. Our soldiers depended on my team and me. I also came from an Army family. Oh yeah. That was a whole other mess I wasn’t about to think about right now. The point being, I wasn’t afraid of a challenge.
“When he said he wanted a beach-themed wedding, I thought he meant a sea-foam green and white color theme. I thought starfish and, yes, seashells, but I expected them to be part of the decor, not my clothing! But no, Skip has to take everything to the extreme.”
Damn. When had I started pacing? I spun to face Kayden, eyes wide. I could feel it coming. A panic attack loomed on the horizon. No matter the pressure, I’d never had a panic attack during my Naval career. In my personal life? Yeah, that was a whole other story.
“The thing is, he knows, Kay. He knows how I feel about these…these sea roaches, and he still did this to me.”
Kayden blinked at me. “Sea roaches?”
“Crustaceans are the cockroaches of the sea. Did you know they’re both in the same classification? And yet people go to restaurants to rip their limbs off and suck out their entrails.”
Kayden put a hand to his stomach and turned a little green. “I’ll never be able to eat seafood again. Thanks for that. I appreciate it.”
It struck me then what I had to do.
“Ward. He can help.” No one was as level-headed as my cousin Ward Kingston, the quintessential Kingston. The man was an immovable mountain, a former Green Beret who now co-owned the most prestigious private security company in Florida. While serving abroad, a building fell on him, and he just walked away.
Ward had thoughtfully brought his brothers-in-arms and nearly all of their security company’s staff to the wedding because I’d needed to fill my mostly empty side of the aisle. Not that I’d cared about filling it, but Skip had thrown a hissy fit worthy of the most fabulous diva because “the aesthetics would be disproportional in the photos.”
I moved the tent flap discreetly to one side and waved frantically at my cousin. He wasn’t paying attention, probably scowling a seagull into submission. I did, however, manage to catch his boyfriend’s eye. I motioned to Ward and bless that sweet little computer nerd, he nodded.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw something dark move down below, and I froze. My eyes dropped to my crotch.
“What is that?”
“I thought I saw something move in one of the shells.”
This wasn’t happening. No way was this happening. I very gingerly took a step back so Kayden could have a look. True friendship was your best friend willing to inspect your crotch.
“Is that….” Oh shit. I was going to hyperventilate. “Tell me that’s not a claw.”
Kayden lifted his gaze. “Okay. What do you want me to tell you it is?”
Kayden took a quick step back, hands waving frantically in front of him, which, again, would have been hysterical coming from a huge six-and-a-half-foot brick wall if I weren’t about to pass out. “I don’t know what the right answer is here. Jesus, you’re making me panic.”
And that was what being my friend did to people because Kayden was the kind of magical, level-headed unicorn who inhaled panic and exhaled tranquility. The guy had a black belt in meditation. If they gave out belts for that sort of thing. I made the mistake of looking down again.
“Oh fuck, it’s a crab.” I put my hands up, surrendering to some higher force, whatever would stop this nightmare.
“I’m sure it’s not….” Kayden leaned in again, his green eyes going huge. He slowly straightened and held his hands back up in front of him. “Okay, let’s say there was a teeny tiny, barely visible hermit crab. There’s no need to panic.”
“Oh fuck, it’s a crab. There’s a crab on my dick!” I panicked. I so panicked.
“Calm down. Breathe.”
“There’s a crab on my dick!” There was no breathing. No breath was coming into my body.
“It’s only a tiny one.”
“It has pinchers,” I yelled, making pinchy crab motions. Oh, I was losing it. In my defense, there was a sea roach on my private parts. “And it’s on my dick! What if it has crab rabies and my dick falls off?”
Did crabs get rabies?
“Breathe,” Kayden urged. “I don’t think crabs can get rabies. Parasites, maybe.”
“What?” Oh, Jesus. Oh, god. Oh, sweet Dolly Parton. “Get this off!”
I held my arms out and turned so Kayden could pull off my jacket. I could barely move my arms in the damned thing. Once it was off, I frantically checked my arms to ensure nothing was left behind. I was briefly aware of someone stepping into the tent but paid no attention. I was neck-deep in crisis mode.
“Get it off! I need to get it off.”
Logically, I knew I wasn’t in danger of being castrated by a hermit crab, but instinctually, I feared for my manly extremities and their peril. I needed to save them. I kicked off my shoes and shoved the shell pants down my legs, jumping out of them and doing a jig, hoping to rid myself of any crab cooties. Fuck, why did these things only happen to me?
And, of course, my I’m-such-a-badass-mosquitos-are-to-scared-to-bite-me cousin would be the one to witness my descent into crustacean madness. I grabbed his arms, nonetheless.
“Ward! I need your help. Can I borrow some money? I’ll pay you back, I promise.”
Ward was the epitome of stoicism. “Where’s your wallet?”
“The shell suit has no pockets!”
Ward didn’t even blink. “Right. Of course. I don’t have much cash on me, so take this.” Ward removed a credit card from his wallet along with what cash he did have. He handed them over, his blond brows drawn together. “Gage, buddy, you’re not wearing anything but boxer briefs and socks.”
Thank god good sense had prevailed and I’d decided not to go commando. I removed the socks. No sense in looking like an ass. “Where’s my phone? I need to go.”
“Go where?” Kayden handed me my cell phone. “Listen, just let me bring the car around.”
Ward nodded in agreement. “Gage, take a breath.”
I hugged Kayden, then Ward. “Thanks, guys.”
And then I ran out of there in my underwear like the devil—or an army of hermit crabs—was on my heels.
Ignoring the concerned looks of the people inside the hotel, I sped through. I didn’t give security a chance to approach. I stood on the sidewalk in only my boxer briefs, with a credit card that wasn’t mine, and a handful of cash. First things first. Stop the sidewalk from burning my feet. It was hot. Holy shit, the sidewalk was hot.
Nope! I took off toward one of the hotels down the beachfront before Mr. Woodman’s goons could spot me. The security guard inside the lobby threw a hand up, bringing me to a screeching halt.
“Sir, you can’t come in without a shirt and shoes.” He dropped his gaze. “And pants. Especially pants.”
“Where’s your gift shop?” Every hotel had one or three. They’d have some clothes I could buy. The guy looked confused, but thankfully he pointed to his right.
“Down the hall on the left.”
“Thanks.” I took off, checking to make sure the muscle squad wasn’t behind me. Skip’s dad wasn’t part of any organized crime family, but he’d watched one mobster movie too many over the years—his favorite—because he acted like some Don, complete with mob-like thugs. They’d been dispatched to “fetch me,” words Mr. Woodman loved to throw around. Why have a conversation with someone over the phone when you could fetch them?
Finding the hotel’s gift shop, I ran to the clothing section. There was a hell of a lot of pinks. Pretty much everything they had was pink. It wasn’t the color that bothered me; it was the sizing I was worried about. I was not a small man. None of the Kingston men were.
“Is this all you have?” I asked the overly-cheerful-looking young woman standing behind the counter.
“Yes, sir. We had a retiree party here last night. They had an open bar, so….” Her eyes went wide like she’d seen things. Disturbing things. She shook herself out of it. “They’d cleared us out by dinnertime. We have some more stock coming in later today if you’d like to drop back in then. Just make sure you come in before the wedding reception.”
Wedding reception. I just about broke out in hives. I didn’t have a later, so I snagged the only black T-shirt they had that looked like it might fit—despite the pink and mint letters stating “Sassy and Classy in St. Augustine” —and a pair of flamingo pink shorts that were guaranteed to crush my boy bits. I also grabbed the biggest size flip-flops they had, also pink.
Hat. I needed a hat. Something that could hide my face. Oh, and sunglasses. The foolproof disguise of the rich and famous, of which I was neither.
All the hats were pink. My choices were a pink baseball cap with a white veil that said “Bride” or a floppy pink sunhat. Not a choice, then. I grabbed the only pair of sunglasses they had left. I wished they’d been pink and not two pineapples with enough rhinestones to be considered a lethal weapon in the Sunshine State. As long as I didn’t face traffic, I should be able to avoid searing someone’s eyes and causing a pileup.
I ran for the register and handed over Ward’s credit card.
“How are you enjoying your stay, Mr. Kingston?” The young woman chirped after checking the name on the card.
“I’m sorry, but I’m in a hurry.”
She looked me over, her cheeks going pink as if she only now noticed I was mostly naked.
“Right.” She rang up everything quickly while I removed the tags. “Do you, um, need a bag?”
“Nope.” I dropped the flip-flops on the floor, slipped into them, then quickly got dressed, a task that shouldn’t have been as difficult as it was. The shirt was practically painted on, the shorts stretched across my crotch and ass, and were shorter than I would have liked, but it was either that or get arrested for indecent exposure, the latter of which wasn’t out of the question should I happen to bend over.
I slipped on the sunglasses, popped the hat on my head, and smiled. “Thanks.”
Receipt, credit card, and phone wedged as far into my pocket as they could go—which was not very far. Good grief. Women were being scammed in the pocket department—I hurried out of the store, hoping the shorts wouldn’t cut off my circulation enough to impede my getaway.
Where was I even going?
I hadn’t thought that far ahead.
The sun blared down; pedestrians stared at me like I was either an eccentric celebrity they should know or some guy who’d had one too many mimosas. In the distance, Mr. Woodman’s goons appeared like a swarm of Angry Birds ready to detonate.
Usually, I was good under pressure. Navy, remember? Usually, I was great in fight-or-flight situations. Unfortunately, this was not one of those times.
I looked around frantically. A1A wasn’t exactly Ocean Drive. It was lined mostly with shops, restaurants, B&Bs, residential homes, and condos. There was also my footwear problem. Rubber flip-flops didn’t exactly make the best running shoes. Cheering filled the air, and I stilled. Cheers meant people, lots of people. I headed in the direction the sound had come from.
A big event was taking place on the sand a few yards down the beach. Crowds of people had gathered underneath a huge white tent; several smaller tents dotted the beach in the distance. The place was crawling with security. I spotted several vans parked down the street, including a news van. Perfect! My salvation was at hand.
All I had to do was get lost in the crowd. Surely Mr. Woodman’s goons wouldn’t follow me in there, right? Right?
Breathe. Breathing would be good.
As I jogged my way to the enormous crowd—because running might draw suspicion—I remembered what I was wearing. My attire might attract attention, but not the kind of attention Mr. Woodman’s goons would get if they ran in after me. There was nothing more Mr. Woodman hated than someone messing with his reputation, and oh shit, I’d just left his son standing at the altar.
I was a dead man.
No, it was fine. Everything was going to be fine. I told myself to stop being so dramatic. In just a few minutes, I’d get a ride, call Skip and apologize profusely, and his dad would call off his guys. Then I’d go…somewhere until things cooled down and I could show my face again.
I had this.