(Unedited, please excuse any errors)
“May I have the rings?” Stryder turns toward me, hand extended, a goofy grin on his face. From the depths of my jacket pocket, I pull out the bands Stryder and Rory bought together.
Five years, it’s been five years since I found out about Stryder and Rory being together and even though five years have passed, I still have an odd feeling inside me when I see them together. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over that. She was my first love, the girl I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with. I was willing to give up everything for her, but she wasn’t willing to let me do that.
After five years, I realize I probably owe her a thank you because she was right, I belong in the sky and even though I loved her more than anything, I would have probably at some point resented the fact that I wasn’t doing what I set out to do at such a young age.
My job might be grueling and dangerous, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“Here you go, man,” I say, handing Stryder the rings.
When he asked me to be his best man, there wasn’t an inkling of doubt in my head that I would say no. I knew from the beginning he needed me by his side. I’m his family. His ONLY family.
There isn’t one Sheppard at the wedding, not even his brothers. Stryder said they couldn’t get the time off to be here but I call bullshit. He’s the black sheep of his family, no longer in the Air Force, only on the reserves, and living his fucking life with Rory, running a training facility here in the Springs that matches up individuals with disabilities and athletes. It’s really taken off and they’ve made a name for themselves.
I stopped by the facility a few days ago and took it all in, watched Stryder as he expertly trained the athletes, joking and pushing them to their full potential with grace and understanding. I don’t ever think I’ve ever seen him so happy, not even when we used to go jumping. It was as if the clouds parted and he truly found what he was supposed to be doing with his life. He took his Air Force training, Rory’s passion, and they turned it into something amazing.
I’m proud of Stryder and I know Gramps would be proud too.
Hands cat my side, the military drilled into my every stance, I watch as a small tear trickles down Rory’s eye when she looks up at Stryder after putting the ring on his finger.
She looks gorgeous today, absolutely stunning in a flowy dress with some kind of flower detail attached to the skirt. The flowers match the flower crown in her hair, a Greecian Goddess look. Stryder is a lucky guy, that’s for damn sure.
“Your love will experience it’s up and downs and it will be tested, but remember this, you are each other’s best friend. You are not only in love, but you truly like each other.”
The reverend pauses and next to me, Bryan, Strdyer’s other groomsman, cheers spontaneously causing everyone including the bride and the groom to chuckle.
The reverend smiles at Bryan and then says, “It is my pleasure to introduce to you for the very first time, Mr. and Mrs. Stryder Sheppard. You may kiss the bride.”
Not wasting any time, Stryder wraps his hand around Rory’s neck and brings her lips to his. The crowd cheers, I clap, and when they turn toward the crowd, they excitingly hold their clasped hands up in the air as they walk down the aisle to a classic Creedence Clearwater Revival song. Must have been Bryan’s choice. I smile to myself and when it’s my turn to walk down the aisle, I move to the middle where I offer my arm to Ryan.
She glances up at me, a smile on her lips.
“Well, well, well, we finally get a moment alone. Beautiful ceremony, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Yeah.” I bite the inside of my cheek and then say, “Never got that text you said you’d send.”
Five years ago, when I was drowning my sorrows at a bar learning to let go of Rory, I ran into Ryan, Rory’s best friend. I was drunk enough to feel wobbly in the legs, but not too drunk to notice when someone was in trouble. The guy she was with was being aggressive toward her, so I stepped up, and made it known that she was with me. The guy backed off and Ryan thanks me for her help by taking my number and promising me dinner. I was on temporary duty in Colorado Springs at the time, so a homecooked meal would have been nice, even it was from Ryan who’s a hot mess in the kitchen.
But I never got that text.
I shrugged it off, not really caring at all since I was never really friends with Ryan. But now that she’s here, hanging on my arm, I have no qualms in calling her out, especially since we’ll be spending the next hour taking pictures together with Stryder and Rory.
“Just jumping right in with that, aren’t you?”
“Ahh, see that you’re still the silent type. Maybe that’s why I didn’t text you, because I didn’t want to spend the night talking to myself.”
We follow Rory, Stryder, and the photographer out to the back of the venue with Rory’s parents and Bryan. Together as a family, they start taking pictures, leaving me and Ryan off to the side.
“I would have talked.”
She steps away from me but keeps her eyes trained on me, giving me a once over. Last time I saw her, her hair was brown but now, it’s back to it’s original blonde, long and twisted low at the nape of her neck in a bun with a few strands casually framing her heart-shaped face.
Her hands rest on her hips, the navy blue Grecian style dress draped down the length of her body, a small slit on the side that barely reaches her knee. “You’re really fixated on this, aren’t you?”
“Nah, didn’t care too much. A homemade dinner would have been nice.”
“I can’t cook”
“Neither can I,” I answer honestly. I either eat out, or I make myself scrambled eggs, that’s about it. Rory taught me how to make meatballs once but hell if I can remember how to do that. All I know is that I enjoyed crushing the beef between my fingers.
She chuckles. “Well aren’t we a pair.” She turns to watch Stryder and Rory together. Apparently not giving a shit about the even bigger elephant in the room, Ryan asks, “Is this weird for you.”
“I have a flask in my jacket pocket, you tell me.”
She lifts her bouquet and pulls out a mini bottle of alcohol. She wiggles her eyebrows at me. “Thought maybe we both need this since we have to sit through all these pictures with them.”
“Smirnoff vodka? That’s what you brought with you to take pictures?”
“It was all I had. Don’t judge me.”
Playfully she whacks my arm. “You shouldn’t be judging me, I was inventive. I carved out a little space in my bouquet for this bottle. If anything, you should congratulate me on this genius idea.”
“Was it your idea?”
“I mean . . .” she toes the ground. “I might have seen the idea on Pinterest along with a recipe for beer cookies that tasted like vomit.”
“Beer cookies?” I shake my head and take the little bottle from her. Twist the cap, tilt the bottle back and swig. I hand it back to her, leaving half the bottle. “Even I know better than to think beer cookies would taste good.”
“They were for a boyfriend, I was trying to impress him.”
“Impress or poison?”
“Impress,” she laughs, “Although after out break up, I should probably say poison. Teach all future suitors, if you mess with me, you get poisoned.”
“It’d keep me away, that’s for damn sure.”
She finishes off the rest of the little bottle and returns it back to her bouquet. She pats it and says, “So I can recycle it later.”
“Get drunk and save the earth, sounds like a good combination to me.”
“Ryan and Colby, can we get you over here for a few pictures?” The photographer calls out.
“That’s our cue.” Ryan pokes my cheek with her index finger, looking sincerely at me. “Don’t forget to smile, these pictures will last forever.”
“Scowling not in the job description of best man?”
As we walk over, she says, “I would normally say no, but given the bride is your ex-girlfriend, one scowl is allowed.”
“One scowl? Damn, better make it a good one.”
“I’m not doing anything stupid.”
“Come on,” Ryan pulls on my arm. “We have to.”
“We really don’t.”
Groaning, Ryan turns behind us to Rory and Stryder. “What are you two doing?”
“It’s a surprise,” Rory beams.
“Oh my God, did you choreograph something?”
“No,” Stryder says quickly.
Rory bounces in her heels. “Sort of.” Stryder rolls his eyes.
I give my friend a pointed look. “Come on, man. What the hell?”
Stryder shrugs his shoulders. “I mean . . . she said yes to marrying me, I’d pretty much do anything at that point. It’s nothing super special, we met in the middle. At first, she wanted us to have an entire dance production when we were called out into the reception which included you doing a variation of the worm.”
This time, I stare Rory down. “What? It would have been fun.”
“Just be glad I was able to nix that idea.” Stryder pats me on the back.
“But you guys are doing something special?” Ryan cuts in, getting anxious, I can tell from the way she looks so jittery.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s tradition, right? Whenever the bridal party gets introduced during the reception you have to do some fun dance move.”
“Not necessarily. You can just walk onto the dance floor. Wave. That’s it,” I say, not wanting to “dance” in front of a bunch of people I don’t know.
“Booo.” Ryan pokes my chest. “Turn around, give me a piggy back.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Forget it.”
She huffs. “Are you still salty about the text?”
No. But I might have had a few shots already and I’m feeling playful. “Maybe.”
She dramatically rolls her eyes and thumbs in my direction. “This guy,” she speaks to Stryder and Rory, “Comes barreling in like a knight in shining armor, scares my date away with his Air Force friends and then holds it over my head as if he gave me the best orgasm of my life and I never repaid him.”
“Not cool, dude.”
“Wait, you two hooked up?” Rory asks, looking maybe a little too excited.
“No,” I answer curtly.
“Ha, no, we did not hook up.” She grips my shoulder. “Hooking up with this ice cube. Impossible.”
“You know we’re sitting next to each other at the table too, you’re going to have to talk to me again at some point.”
I hold on to her tightly, my hand on her trim waist, the other hand holding hers as we sway back and forth on the dance floor, Rory and Stryder next to us, her parents off to the side as well.
“We had to do something,” Ryan continues. “Everyone expects it and since you wouldn’t agree on anything, I had to go rogue.” She pauses and then says, “Basically what this comes down to is you being stubborn so you only have yourself to blame, when you push me to the point of having to go rogue, that’s on you, pal.”
I stay silent, my eyes starting to play tricks on me with the lights up above.
“You can’t be mad at me.”
Maybe I can a little. Nah . . . I can’t be mad. Irritated, just a tad.
“Hello, anyone in there?” Ryan asks, tapping on my head with her index finger. “I know there is a voice box inside this,” she grips my sturdy body, “In this massive body. What do you bench? 95 pounds?”
My brow pinches together as I pull away to look her in the eyes, see if she’s serious. “What? No. I bench two-eighty.”
Knowingly she points her finger at me, a smile playing on her lips. “Ha, I knew I could get you to talk to me again.”
I roll my eyes and move back into position, slowly moving us around the dance floor.
“Come on, it wasn’t a bad entrance.”
“You pretended your bouquet was a penis and tried to penetrate me.”
She covers her mouth and snorts, leaning her head into my chest, still finding the damn entrance into the reception area funny.
“I’m sorry. But I can’t get the look on your face from the first bouquet probe out of my head.” She laughs some more, her shoulders shaking in my hold.
“Laugh it up, Ryan,” I mumble.
“You were so surprised. Straight up had an O face. And how you swatted me away, classic.” More chuckling.
“Are you done?”
She shakes her head. “Nope, that image is going to last me a while. Sorry, bud.”
“How’s the steak?” Ryan asks, mouth full of the vegetarian option, some kind of lasagna with carrots and spinach sticking out of it.
“Good,” I answer, cutting into the soft as hell meat. Straight up some of the best steak I’ve ever had.
Reaching around my arm, she sticks her fork into the piece of steak I just cut and plops it in her mouth.
Uh, excuse me?
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Sampling.” She takes a bite of my mashed potatoes. “What does it look like I’m doing?”
I push her fork away when she reaches in for another bite. “You can’t just take people’s food without asking. Where are your manners?”
“We’re friends, it’s allowed. Questions not necessary.”
“Says who?” I ask, swatting her away again and bringing my plate to the side, out of her reach.
“Says all the friend rule books. Come one, you can have some of this delicious lasagna.” She pushes her plate toward me.
“It looks like lasagna soup.” The Italian dish has lost all of its structure and is now oozing all over her plate, a soupy like base providing a coverage at the bottom.
She scoops up some of the sauce and it falls right through the tongs of her fork. “Yeah, I don’t think they let this thing rest very long. That’s why you should really share your steak with me. You don’t want me passing out during my speech do you?”
God, the fucking speeches. I’m all for being there for Stryder, but having to come up with a best man speech has been absolute torture. What do I really say? Rory is the most amazing women I’ve ever met and I only wish I was the one marrying her today rather than you?
Yeah, that didn’t go over well with the guys on my squadron. They gave me some advice.
Tell Stryder you love him.
And say here’s to the bride and groom.
And that’s exactly what I plan on doing.
“Colby, please.” Ryan bats her ridiculously long eyelashes at me.
“No. Chew on your soup.”
She huffs. “And here I thought you were in the Air Force to protect and serve.” She pokes me in the arm. “Protect me from this lasagna and serve me up your steak.”
I chew on my steak, trying to hold back the smile that’s pulling at my lips. I swallow hard and say, “It’s serve and protect, not protect and serve.”
“Ohhhh nooo, you’re not getting out of this on a technicality.” She points to her mouth with her fork. “Right there, shoot it right down the gullet. Let’s go, Brooks.”
This woman. I swear to God I’m not going to make it through the night without killing her.
“Do you want another drink?” I eye my empty glass of rum and coke and nod. Steak and mashed potatoes have been consumed and we’re just waiting on the DJ to hand over the mic.
“Yeah, I’m going to go get one.” I’m not even feeling a buzz. Clearly I didn’t do a good enough job getting drunk for these speeches. “Can I get you anything?”
“I’ll go with you.” Ryan pushes her chair back and I offer my hand to help her up before I get up myself. “Thank you.” She winks. “Such a gentleman.”
I push my seat in and look around the room. It’s a small wedding since Stryder’s family isn’t in attendance but it’s nice, not being surrounded by a lot of people who you don’t know, especially when I have to make a speech soon.
Stryder and Rory are off talking to the tables around the barn-like reception hall, thanking everyone for attending, looking so goddamn in love that it’s hard to not be happy for them, even when I’m carrying maybe a one percent mount of bitter in my heart.
Just one percent. I think I’m allowed that. It doesn’t eclipse my happiness for them, but it is a little reminder that I am a lonely mother fucker.
“You know, that scowl makes you look jealous.”
Am I scowling? Shit.
“Have a headache.”
Ryan sees right through me and pokes me in the side. “Liar. Don’t worry, we’re about to do a few shots to get you through this next part of the night and then it’s dancing time until we feed each other cake.”
She twirls, extending her arms out and taking in the empty dance floor. Wisps of her blonde hair floating around her face as she smiles back at me. She has such a carefree spirit. I’m jealous. It almost seems like there isn’t a worry or care in her life.
My mind focuses back on what she said as we reach the bar and she orders four shots of whiskey. “I’m not dancing. And I’m not sure if you’ve forgotten, but we’re not the bride and groom, we don’t feed each other cake.”
She hands me a shot and clinks our glasses together, quickly downing the amber liquid. With a lift of her finger, she encourages me to take my shot as she says, “oh, you’re dancing, trust me on that and if dessert was anything like dinner, you’ll be feeding me cake.”
I take the shot and then follow up rapidly with a second only to order a rum and coke and bring it back to our seats.
“Are you nervous about your speech?”
I shrug. “Not excited about it. What about you?”
She waves her hand at someone off in the distance and takes a sip of her glass. “No, I’m just going to talk about all the pancakes we’ve consumed together and all the free bacon we were able to score.”
“Sounds like a solid speech.”
“I think so.” She leans back in her chair and eyes me up and down. “You know, you’ve gotten bigger from when I first met you back when you were at the Air Force Academy.”
“That’s what working out will do to you,” I answer, direct and a little uncomfortable under her gaze.
“Some might say you’re a little macho.”
That makes me snort. I’m anything but macho. I might have about thirty more pounds of muscle on me but there are guys in the Air Force much bigger than me. Granted, they don’t fly fighters because you have to be able to fit in the cockpit to fly it.
“Are you trying to make me uncomfortable?”
“Am I taking your mind off the speech?”
Damn it, she is.
I don’t answer her and instead, sip from my rum and coke, causing her to laugh and push my leg. “God, you are so stubborn, just admit it, I’m distracting you.”
“Unfortunately, you are and not to my liking.”
“But I’m growing on you.” She wiggles her eyebrows.
I pass my hand over my face and let out a heavy sigh. “When I signed up for this best man gig, I never even considered the fact that I was going to have to hang out with you all night.”
“And look how lucky you are.” She winks and takes another sip of her drink.
“Yeah, that’s one way to describe it.”
You will be informed.