Happy holidays, everybody. Here’s the second draft of chapter one of The Bride, after the jump.
There’s no good way to break it to your mother that her twenty-five year old daughter is dating a forty-nine year old billionaire. So I’d never really gotten around to it. By the time we’d flown to my hometown of Calumet, Michigan, I knew I was in trouble.
On the car ride from the Marquette airport, where Neil’s private plane had landed, I mentally rehearsed how I would explain to my mother that I was dating Neil Elwood, publishing magnate and tenth richest man in Great Britain.
Oh, she was going to be so pissed at me.
“Sophie? You’re awfully quiet,” Neil said, his eyes never leaving the snow-covered road for a second. He’d rented a car from the airport, a Malibu that, according to him, “drives like a broken shopping trolley.” He hadn’t been in a great mood since we’d landed.
“I’m letting you concentrate on winter driving.” It was a pretty good excuse; mom said the Keweenaw had already gotten twenty inches of snow in December alone. Highway forty-one was clear, but slushy, and light flurries fell in the gray early morning light.
Neil raised an eyebrow at the road ahead of us. “Darling, I learned to drive in Iceland. I’m sure I can handle this.”
“We get a higher average snowfall than Iceland,” I pointed out. But it wasn’t like I could hide the truth forever, and I really had to stop my whole “head in the sand” routine. “Okay. Confession.”
“On the way to meet your family for the first time. Lovely.” He inhaled, audibly frustrated. “Do they at least know I’m coming?”
“They know you’re coming. My mom just doesn’t know… some stuff.” Better to do it like a Band-Aid. “Maybe I haven’t been entirely honest with her about your money. Or… your age.”
“Sophie!” he barked, tearing his eyes from the dingy gray snow on the road to frown at me.
“I didn’t lie!” And I hadn’t. “I just haven’t corrected my mom when she said ‘this kid you’re dating.’”
“This is bloody fantastic,” he cursed, a muscle in his jaw ticking as he locked his gaze on the road again. “As if I weren’t already nervous?”
“At least I told you before we got there.” Not that I was making it any better by pointing that out. We were already in the car. I could have easily just let this whole thing blow up in our faces upon arrival.
“Sophie, we have been dating for a year! Christ, we’re buying a house together. You didn’t think that eventually your mother would find out?”
I tilted my head and studied his profile. Since the chemotherapy he’d had the year before, his hair had come back in grayer. He’d started growing a beard, a precisely clipped shadow of silver that I absolutely detested, but tolerated because it seemed to make him happy not to have to shave as often. Even before the chemo, our age difference would have been obvious. But now that he was rocking this “hot dad” look, it was going to come as a bigger shock to my mother. She was only forty-two.
“You know, you’re very handsome when you’re annoyed with me,” I observed.
His mood didn’t lighten. “I’m always handsome, Sophie. Stop changing the subject. Why didn’t you tell your mother the truth about me?”
I shifted a little in the passenger seat. “I meant to. I really did. But then I let way too much time pass, and it got harder and harder to work it in. It never seemed like the right time.”
“And a house full of your extended relatives is the perfect venue for initiating that conversation, is it?” he fumed. “What is this? Are you… embarrassed of me?”
That made me laugh, despite the fact he was roaring angry. “No! Seriously, that’s not it. That’s stupid. But my mom is to me as you are to Emma. How would you feel if she moved to a different country with an older man she’d met only two months before?”
“It depends on if that man is Horrible Michael or not,” he grumbled. He hated his daughter’s fiancé for no reason I could see, beyond that fact that he was going to marry Emma. In Neil’s opinion, no one deserved Emma. He would have to cop to understanding my mother’s point of view, or concede that Michael wasn’t all bad.
The latter was never going to happen, so he said, “It’s completely understandable that you didn’t know how to explain our relationship to your family. I must admit to having a bit of an advantage here; as a wealthy, middle-aged man, I’m expected to have affairs with beautiful women half my age. It says nothing negative about my character. The beautiful young women bear the brunt of the scorn, for being vapid, shallow gold diggers.”
“Now that I know you understand where I’m coming from, I feel even worse for not telling you.” I laid my hand on his knee. “I’m really sorry. Does it help at all that I never lied?”
“Your mother is expecting a twenty-four year old to walk through that door,” he reminded me grimly.
“My mother wasn’t going to like you, no matter what. At least this way she has a reason that isn’t openly pathetic.”
“I don’t think it’s openly pathetic to dislike Michael’s loud chewing. Or his overly American accent,” Neil muttered.
“Somebody’s projecting,” I sing-songed. The corner of Neil’s mouth twitched, but he squashed his smile before it could fully form. I lifted the hand he rested on the gearshift and kissed his fingertips through his leather gloves.
He pulled his hand back with a resigned sigh. “Sophie… I thought you were getting better at confronting difficult situations. We’ve been talking about the great progress you’re making—“
“Yes, progress. I’m not one hundred percent perfect.” I heard the defensiveness in my own voice and mentally started counting to ten. “I’m sorry, I just… could you not bring up therapy? I’d rather argue.”
“Sorry, that was below the belt, wasn’t it?” He looked over, then back to the road.
“I’m working on it.” I had to. It had been a rocky year for both of us, with Neil’s cancer treatment and my sudden plunge into the world of medical caregiver. He’d spent a scary time in the ICU, nearly dying from a kidney infection that had struck while his immune system was down for the count; I’d been in full-time survival mode. Then, for the months that followed, I’d never quite shaken that mindset. If anything annoyed me, I’d think, “But at least Neil is okay,” and feel incredibly guilty for being upset, especially if he’d been the cause of the annoyance. It had made for a very contentious few months of me pretending everything was fine until I exploded. Neil constantly walked on eggshells to keep from upsetting me, until we both decided that seeing a counselor together was in our best interests.
Couples therapy should be bottled and sold at every available retail outlet.
“Look, this… it has nothing to do with you,” I assured him. “This was completely shitty of me, and I’m sorry. But I promise, I’m not doing this any more. This is just the last one of my avoidance issues coming to a nasty head. And it’s not fair to you.”
He looked over to me, his expression softening. “Apology accepted. But really, Sophie, this puts me in a terribly awkward position.”
“I know.” Boy, did I know. And he couldn’t begin to imagine the half of it. Neil had grown up in an extremely wealthy family, jetting from their homes in England and Iceland to fabulous holiday locales. The Elwoods had been sophisticated from birth, it seemed. My family had an uncle who painted his beer gut to look like a watermelon when he walked with the rest of his VFW buddies in the 4th of July parade. Neil was about to get the culture shock of his life, no matter how laid back and easy going he thought he was.
“If it makes you feel any better, at least you’re getting the biggest, most extended of the extended family gatherings out of the way first. After Christmas, any other interaction with my family will be a piece of cake.” I added, to try to put his mind at ease, “Besides. I’m sure everyone is going to be totally cool with you.”
* * * *
We were overrun the moment we stepped through the door.
“Becky!” someone—my cousin Steve, I think—shouted into the dining room. “Yer daughter and her fella got in.”
“Merry Christmas!” My aunt Marie shouted, wrapping her arms around me. Her hair was a graying blonde cloud of perfectly sculpted curls that got into my eyes and mouth as she hugged me.
Beside me, Neil Elwood, internationally known billionaire, swayed slightly on his feet. I really hoped he wasn’t going to pass out, because he was carrying two bottles of very expensive champagne in the sleek black shopping bag in his hand.
My aunt Marie stepped back and did a double take as she looked Neil over. Her eyes went wide, and she bit her lips to try and disguise her mischievous smile. “Oh, your mom is going to shit.”
The back porch of my grandmother’s house was easily the most down-home place in the Midwest. Decked out in laminated wood paneling and thick plastic rugs to protect the carpet in the high traffic areas, Christmas saw the room turned into a glorious buffet with my aunts and great aunts scurrying to bring hot dishes to the already laden-down folding table. A truly hideous light up clock of the last supper hung on the wall over the sliding glass entryway into the main part of the house.
I took Neil’s hand. “Come on. Let’s go see mom and get this over with.”
When we stepped into the tiny, cramped kitchen, my mom was bent over a steaming sink, having just strained some boiled potatoes. She looked fabulous as always, in wide-legged black trousers and a fitted, leopard-print cardigan. Her blonde hair— as fake as her nails and just as difficult to maintain— was perfectly straightened and held back from her face with a clip.
“I’m home!” I declared as she shook the last drops out of the huge stockpot.
She turned to face us, the corners of her eyes crinkling with happiness when she saw me. Then her gaze darted to Neil, and her smile did that telltale, split-second freeze I’d gotten so used to over the years. The I’m-freaking-out-internally freeze.
She hugged me, harder than absolutely necessary, and effused, “Honey, I’m so glad you made it! I was worried the airport would close down because of the storm yesterday.”
“It didn’t.” After stating the obvious, there was nowhere to go but introductions. “Mom, this is Neil. Neil, this is my mom, Rebecca.”
She put out her hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Neil. Sophie has had only good things to say about you.”
Turning to me with raised eyebrows, she said, “Not that she’s said a lot.”
“Yes, she mentioned that in the car on the way over.” He gave her what was possibly the most charming smile I’ve ever seen on him. Oh, baby. You’re wasting your energy, she already hates you.
My grandmother was at the stove. She looked over the shoulder of her red, bedazzled Christmas sweater. “Well, don’t hug me, for god’s sake. I only haven’t seen you for a year.”
“Merry Christmas, Grandma,” I said as I went to her with open arms.
Over my shoulder, I heard my mom ask, “So, Neil. What do you do?”
“I own two multimedia conglomerates, one in the US and England and the other based out of Reykjavik.”
“Oh. How nice for you.” My mom was going to die of a heart attack on the kitchen floor.
“Is there a lot of money in that?” my grandmother asked him, with all the tact small town Michigan matriarchs generally displayed.
Neil’s eyebrows lifted, and he blinked three times, rapidly, before managing to answer, “I do all right.”
“It’s a wonder anybody’s doing all right these days, with those damn Republicans—“
“Ma!” my mother hushed her. “Nobody wants to talk about politics at Christmas.”
“I, uh, I brought a little something to contribute to the festivities,” Neil said, reaching into the shopping bag to pull out one of the bottles of 1996 Dom Pérignon.
He’d brought the Dom Pérignon because I’d suggested he not go overboard. My mother was going to eat him alive.
She took the bottle and turned it in her hands with a little nod. “This was very thoughtful of you.”
My grandmother turned back to the stove. “We’ve got beer, too, Neil, in the cooler outside the door. Just don’t let all the heat out.”
“I’ll chill this,” Mom said, taking the other bottle from Neil.
Grandma deposited a heavy bowl into my hands, and I gasped, juggling it quickly so as not to slosh gravy onto my coat. “Take that out to the table.”
I cast an apologetic glance at Neil as I moved past him, into the crowded dining room and out to the porch. As I went, I heard my grandma shoo him out of the kitchen.
It wasn’t a long journey with the bowl, but by the time I got back to Neil, he’d been cornered by my great uncle Doug, who had an open beer in his hand despite the fact it was eleven AM on Christmas morning.
“You heard a dem gingerbread Oreos?” he asked Neil, taking a swig from his bottle.
Neil blinked and stammered, “N-no. That sounds horrible.”
“No, they’re a real thing,” Doug insisted, gesturing with his beer. “They were on the channel six news.”
“I’m sorry, did you say noose?” Neil spotted me, and his relief was visible. I should have warned him about the thick Yooper accent that ran in my family.
“Hey, Sophie!” Uncle Doug put out his arm for a half hug. He was my grandmother’s youngest brother, sixty-five, and he’d recently retired from his job as a DNR officer. “Did ya hear about dem gingerbread Oreos?”
“That sounds gross.” I stood beside Neil and reached up to put a hand on his shoulder. It was as hard as a blacksmith’s anvil with tension. I hoped he’d brought his headache pills with him.
“They got ‘em down in Marquette,” Doug went on. “They don’t got ‘em at the Pat’s here, but I told Debbie’s sister, ‘you better save me some of dem gingerbread Oreos.’”
My aunt Debbie yelled from the living room that there was something wrong with their cell phone, and Doug excused himself. As he walked away, Neil muttered to me, “I feel like I’m listening to an alien language.”
“Oh, you just wait until I’ve been up here a couple of days. No matter how hard I’ve tried to shake it, the accent always comes back.”
Neil’s eyes widened as he considered the implications of that statement. “I think I do need one of those beers after all.”
My grandmother emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. “Everybody shut up, we’re gonna pray!”
Since my cousin Jimmy was going into the seminary, he did the honors. As everyone crossed themselves— including me, solely on reflex—Neil bowed his head respectfully. That’s one of the things I really love about Neil; he’s mindful of small stuff, and that lets him fit in anywhere, even when he doesn’t fit in at all.
We’d been sticking to a mostly vegan diet since Neil had picked it up during the big, fun year of cancer. But there was absolutely nothing that could be classified as vegan at my family’s cheese-smothered Christmas dinner, so we took the opportunity to gorge ourselves shamefully on fatty baked ham and thick, gooey casseroles.
There has never been a dinner table invented that could hold an entire extended family of Catholics. There were just too damn many Scaifes, so most of us ate standing up, or sitting on couches or folding chairs, since there were only six seats around the dining room table.
Neil and I stood in the little corner next to the back bedroom, our plates balanced on our hands, our bottles of Leinenkugel perched on the windowsill between ancient styrofoam snowmen.
“I need you to still love me,” I managed around a mouthful of scorching hot mashed potatoes, “when you are witness to the gastrointestinal nightmare that will be this food’s legacy.”
“We shall never speak of this night. What happens in Michigan stays in Michigan. Hopefully including your accent.” He lifted another bite of ham to his mouth. “And we must never tell Emma about the orgy of animal products we’re ingesting.”
“Who’s Emma?” My mom looked over her shoulder from the dinner table. The woman had the hearing of a buck in November.
Neil chewed and swallowed, then reached for his beer. “My daughter. She’s a vegan.”
“Oh, you have a daughter?” My mom brightened, and my grandma and aunt Marie both perked up. I knew mom had visions of adorable kindergarteners in her mind.
“It’s a funny story,” I said, even though I knew it wouldn’t strike them as remotely funny. “She’s twenty-five. She’s my exact age.”
“She’s a month younger,” he clarified. As though that made things better.
“Oh, a whole month.” Anger tightened my mom’s fake smile. I thought it might crack and fall off.
“Well, that would be a good story, wouldn’t it, Becky?” Aunt Marie laughed to defuse the tension. “’My daughter and my grandbaby are the same age.’ You could go on Maury.”
“Um, no, Emma is not…” I shook my head. “Emma is not my baby.”
“Well, you better have some soon,” Marie said, as though it weren’t the most mortifying thing in the world for her to order Neil and I to procreate. “Your mom’s been hungry for a grandbaby.”
How soon my mom’s expectations had swung from “don’t get pregnant,” to “get immediately pregnant,” the moment a man was in the picture for me. I bet she felt different now that she’d met Neil.
I’d gotten pregnant the year before, but we hadn’t kept the baby. I didn’t regret that choice, but I was glad my mom didn’t know. She’d told me time and again how disappointed she was that I wouldn’t have children. I wasn’t about to change my mind, but I wished for her sake that she didn’t feel that way.
I’d already warned Neil about my mother’s obsession with being a grandmother, and he’d agreed to take the fall for me. He cleared his throat and said, quite seriously, “Well, after I had chemotherapy and the transplant this year, it’s not likely that children are in our future.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.” I had no doubt that my mom meant that. She would probably feel irrationally guilty over Marie’s remarks later.
“The good news is, he’s still alive,” I reminded them with a wise-ass smirk.
Neil grinned over the top of his beer bottle. “Somehow, you’ll just have to cope with your disappointment, Mrs. Scaife.”
My mom laughed, and I saw a glimmer of hope that she might slightly warm to Neil after all.
A little after lunch, Neil excused himself to call Emma and wish her a happy Christmas. “I’ll go outside,” he said, gesturing toward the door with his phone. “It’s a bit loud in here. And I don’t want to be rude, of course.”
“Don’t stick your tongue to anything out there, or it will get stuck.” I teased.
The moment he was gone, my mother and my aunt Marie herded me into the back bedroom. I backed into the end of the narrow bed and had no choice but to sit on all the coats as the two women loomed over me.
“Explain yourself, Sophie Anne!” Mom hissed in a low voice.
“Explain what?” I held out my open and utterly innocent palms. “I told you I was bringing my boyfriend to Christmas, I brought my boyfriend to Christmas.”
“You didn’t go to law school! You are not going to lawyer your way out of this!” Mom pressed her garish holiday manicure to her forehead. “How old is he?”
“Forty-nine.” I lifted my chin defiantly. Or was that childishly? Why could I never act like an adult when my mother was involved?
“Forty— I’m not even forty-nine, Sophie! What the hell are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking he’s super hot and great in bed?”
Mom crossed herself. “Jesus Christ.”
“Okay, so, what does he do?” aunt Marie asked, her voice insistently calm, like we were in an emergency that needed immediate handling. Then, in split second of panic, she added, “For a living! I meant for a living, what does he do?”
“He owns two media companies. He’s the tenth richest man in Great Britain.”
My mom sat down heavily beside me. “Oh, sweetie, you’re not doing this for the money, are you?”
“Mother, no! God, I didn’t even know he was rich when I met him.” I shook my head. “Why can’t I just meet a guy and fall in love with him and not have any ulterior motive? You are being extremely weird about this.”
“Your mom is just concerned for you, Sophie,” Marie said gently.
“And pissed off that you didn’t tell me any of this before,” mom added.
I took a sharp breath, my exasperation audible. “It’s not like I lied to you—“
“You didn’t lie to me, but you didn’t tell the truth!”
“What does it even matter?” I demanded. “It’s not like I’m doing anything wrong, for god’s sake.”
“So he’s a little older, so what?” Marie said, putting her hands on her hips. “Sophie, do you love him?”
“And does he treat you good and love you back?”
I nodded decisively at my aunt. She turned to my mom. “Then why are you having a shit fit over this, Becky? You should just be happy that she found a guy who isn’t covered in tattoos with a bunch of junk in his face.”
Marie was talking about my first boyfriend, a nineteen year old I’d started dating when I was seventeen. He’d had the most awful amateur tattoos and he’d played bass in a garage band. He’d seemed so dangerous and like such a bad boy.
I’d since learned that the truly bad boys looked perfectly normal and respectable until you got them into a Parisian sex club.
Mom huffed. She knew she’d lost the argument. “Are you guys still staying out at the trailer?”
“I don’t know, are we still invited?” I snapped.
Mom’s expression softened. “Of course you are. Just… stop dropping these bombs on me, Sophie. I never know what’s going on with you anymore. You don’t have to be so secretive.”
“Well, apparently she does, if you’re going to freak out like this whenever she tells you something,” Marie observed.
“Can I go now and enjoy my lovely Christmas with my family, who I have not seen in a year?” I asked with a roll of my eyes.
Mom huffed and I pushed through the door and out into the dining room. Neil was still outside, thank god. I went to the kitchen and leaned over the sink to peer out the window. He paced between cars in the driveway, phone to his ear, his other arm wrapped around his chest. Occasionally he stopped and bounced for warmth. He had a huge grin on his face as he talked to his daughter.
I knew it was difficult for him to be away from her at Christmas. The only other time it had happened, Emma had told me, had been when he’d gone to visit his ex-wife, Elizabeth, and her family the year before they’d gotten married.
Emma took this trip to be a very good sign for her father and me.
Still, I felt a little bad that Neil wasn’t spending the holiday with his daughter. I knew he missed her terribly. It assuaged my guilt slightly that she was celebrating with her fiancé and his family this year.
The rest of the visit was surprisingly stress free. Neil was asked at least seven times what part of Ireland he was from, but he was very gracious about correcting people. As the day went on he relaxed considerably, and I marveled again at how adaptable he was to such an unfamiliar situation. Neil had grown up incredibly wealthy and properly mannered, but he didn’t look down on my loud, sometimes earthy family the way other people with his upbringing might have.
It was around four o’clock when Neil and I left, our arms weighted down with plates of leftovers, cookies, and my grandmother’s fudge. I must have hugged all of my relatives a thousand times apiece.
“Are you heading back to the trailer right now?” my mom called from the dining room table as we walked past.
“No, I wanted to take Neil to see the lake while it was still light out.” I gestured to the door. “We’ll meet you back there. Is the key still in the same place?”
“Just don’t ‘get lost,’ or ‘run out of gas,’” Marie snarked, complete with finger quotes.
My mother shot her a look. “Yes, the key is in the same place. I’ll be heading that way shortly.”
“Okay. Bring more leftovers, we’ll have dinner.” I was going to be as relentlessly cheerful as possible about this whole thing.
When we stepped outside, Neil gave me a reassuring smile. “I think that went quite well.”
Awww. The poor guy. “I think you’re being way too optimistic. You have no idea what’s going to happen to you tonight.”