What’s Next

RUNAWAY GROOMSMAN

PROLOGUE

 

SAWYER

 

“She’s so beautiful.” A cooing aunt swoons.

 

“Absolutely breathtaking,” a mother admits while waving her hand in her face, warding off tears.

 

“Simon is one lucky SOB,” a man says while turning to Simon and giving him a wink.

 

“Oscar de la Renta in white looks spectacular on Annalisa. Don’t you think?” Armie, Simon’s brother, says as he nudges me with his elbow, pulling me from my lethal reverie.

 

“Yeah . . . a real goddess,” I say, my voice dripping in sarcasm as I watch my ex-girlfriend walk down the aisle, hand in hand with her father, toward my best friend, Simon Fredrickson.

 

You read that correctly.

 

My ex-girlfriend is marrying my best friend.

 

A large, wet sniff echoes through the illustrious cathedral, which is coated in white from the light-washed floorboards to the vaulted ceilings connected a forty-foot pitch. A church made in Hollywood Heaven.

 

I glance over at Simon, who’s dabbing at his eyes with a light-blue handkerchief, a tender yet purposeful groom’s gift from his bride: a statement that it’s not just okay to cry while she walks down the aisle but required, because the cameras will be flashing.

 

The cameras have not stopped flashing since they were caught together on a boat cruise to Catalina. She was wearing a floral-print sundress, Gucci leather sandals, and her hair in loose curls, while he sported a pair of simple navy-blue shorts and a light-blue button-up with the top four buttons undone. No man undoes the top four buttons of his shirt as casual wear unless his first name starts with Douche and the last ends with Canoe.

 

The reason I know exactly what they were wearing when they were “caught” is because I read the caption under the picture of their love tryst at least 752 times before it actually processed in my head.

 

Annalisa Morton, my girlfriend of five years—the woman I planned on marrying—and breakout actress from the wildly popular streaming platform Movieflix, known for starring in wholesome romantic movies, was cheating on me, with my best friend.

 

Not just my best friend.

 

But her costar.

 

Her costar in the movie I wrote for both of them.

 

Some blogs said I practically wrote the script for their love, and with the undeniable force between their looks and my words, it was bound to happen. I should have been smarter.

 

Yeah, sure, blame it on the guy who was cheated on.

 

Couldn’t have been the fact that my ex-girlfriend and best friend wouldn’t know loyalty if it slapped them in the face with the latest fad drink from Starbucks.

 

Overnight, the affair erupted, and the world embraced the new couple.

 

Embraced!

 

I thought that was a kick in the crotch, until Simon asked me to meet him at the pub around the corner from my beachside apartment and begged me to be his best man at their wedding.

 

Begged.

 

Pleaded.

 

At one point . . . threatened.

 

Which has landed me in this very spot, staring down Annalisa in a slim-cut silk dress that screams old Hollywood, tears brimming in her eyes as she walks down the aisle toward Simon.

 

Why not say no?

 

Why not tell them to fuck off?

 

Because you see, there is a hierarchy in society we must follow. It goes: God, Hollywood, the president, and then it trickles down from there. At times, Hollywood and God duke it out for the power to make decisions, and more often than not, the greed from Hollywood wins out.

 

Unluckily for me, the producers of the movie we were all making together, as one big happy family, pulled me to the side and whispered in my ear that if I ever wanted to write in “this town” again, I needed to suck up my pride and do what was best for the film.

 

With my career in the balance, I sucked up my “pride” and I went along with the romance, acting as if everything was okay.

 

I smiled gaily when their engagement pictures spread like wildfire.

 

I gleefully shook Simon’s hand when he asked me to be his best man—after the ominous threat, of course.

 

And I even gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to a paparazzo when Simon’s bachelor party was staged in Vegas.

 

And now that I’m here, standing at the altar with my sniffling weasel of a best friend, all I can think about is how I’m not sure I can possibly take any more of this fanciful mockery of a union.

 

When she’s midway down the aisle, because Annalisa is living up this nauseating moment, the congregation breaks into joyous applause, as if she’s Miss America taking her victory stroll, sash and flowers clutched dramatically to her bodice.

 

The men next to me clap.

 

The parents in front of me clap.

 

The bridesmaids to the right of me tear up and of course . . . clap. Trained actors at their finest.

 

I’m the only sane person in the building who is looking around, wondering what the hell is going on—until I’m on the receiving end of a sharp elbow jab to the ribs from Armie, accompanied by a ferocious side-eye that can only be described as the embodiment of derisive contempt.

 

I lift my hands and offer a slow clap, laced in sarcasm.

 

Thankfully, no one notices the true meaning behind my subtle clap. As long as I’m performing joyful noise, they don’t bother considering my intent.

 

After what feels like half an hour, Annalisa makes it to the altar, kisses her dad on the cheek, and then sucks in a sharp breath as she makes a scene of giving her besotted groom a slow once-over. And because they are expert performers, she turns to the audience—oh, excuse me, ahem, friends and family—and gestures to Simon with her bouquet.

 

“Give our groom a round of applause. Have you ever seen anyone more handsome?”

 

The best man cleans up pretty well, but who am I to argue with the bride on her wedding day?

 

Once again, the chapel rings with clapping, and as all eyes are on us, I smile and give Simon a few claps as well while I envision his head between my hands, and instead of clapping my palms together, I’m slapping him right in those floppy, surgically pinned-back ears of his.

 

The chapel finally calms down, people take their seats in the sturdy pine pews, and the pastor begins his speech.

 

I tune him out. Not quite in the mood to hear about how the happy couple is the model for a perfect marriage. Instead, I stare down at the light-blue wing tip shoes that expertly match my light-blue Armani tuxedo, Danny Kaye–style.

 

The shoes bring me back to a time I brought Annalisa to my Boyle Heights apartment, which was littered with friendly drug dealers and ruled by an unspoken agreement—you don’t rat us out and we won’t murder you in your sleep. It was a deal I didn’t mind taking. Annalisa was a struggling actress at the time, so she understood the need for low rent and didn’t even think twice about where I lived. Instead, we cuddled up on the futon on my floor and streamed White Christmas. I marveled at the timeless story line, and she sighed over the costumes, declaring that one day, she was going to marry a man who wore a suit that matched his shoes. I promised her that on her wedding day, I’d make that happen.

 

Only . . . at the time, I was convinced I was going to be the groom, not the best man.

 

“The couple has prepared their own wedding vows,” the pastor says with an impressed lilt to his voice.

 

Of course they have.

 

Bet they didn’t actually write the vows themselves.

 

I refrain from crossing my arms over my chest and tapping my toe indignantly as they proclaim their everlasting love for each other.

 

This should be good.

 

Simon continues to dab at his eyes—the man must have tear sticks attached to his handkerchief because even though his eyes haven’t stopped dripping, his facial expression remains stoic. Wouldn’t be the first time he inconspicuously taped a tear stick to his eye. I was the one who introduced him to the magical Hollywood trick.

 

In grand fashion, Annalisa sets her shoulders back and makes a dramatic display of drawing a folded piece of paper from the depths of her cleavage like a magician pulling a bunny from his hat. The awe that falls over the crowd is exasperating. You’d think she’d just mastered boss-level sorcery from their oohs and aahs.

 

If they think that’s spectacular, they should attend one of my family reunions, where my aunt Suzie utilizes her cleavage like Mary Poppins’s carpetbag. Roarick, my brother, still swears to this day that he saw her pull a live succulent from between her “bosoms.”

 

Carefully, Annalisa unfolds the paper and looks up at Simon. One would think for being such a trained actress, she’d memorize her vows. But like everything else, it’s all for the show.

 

I stuff my hands in my pockets, and from over Simon’s shoulder, I stare her down. Just waiting to hear what she has to say.

 

“I can remember the day I first laid eyes on you,” she begins.

 

Yeah, it was at my apartment. Simon came flying in looking like a gnome-size Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson in jeans and a black turtleneck. He’d just finished an off-off-Broadway performance of A Day in the Life of Zack Morris, a less-than-titillating “play” that required the hole-in-the-wall theater to refund ticket prices to the audience due to the lead puking across the ten-by-ten-foot stage after an overdose of Sausage McMuffins that morning.

 

He barged through my door, told me there was vomit everywhere, and then ran down to his apartment, one level below me. Annalisa found him offensive.

 

“From your beautifully stark black hair.”

 

Dyed black hair.

 

“To your square, masculine jaw.”

 

Jaw implants; he got them five years ago.

 

“To your mesmerizing blue eyes.”

 

Okay, those are real and are quite fetching.

 

“You took my breath away.”

 

A snort pops out of me before I can stop myself. Annalisa’s eyes flash to mine, beaming a strong warning to keep it together.

 

I straighten up.

 

“I had just started making a splash in the movie business but lacked the confidence I needed to become a true leading lady.”

 

Uh, not the way I remember it. She already had an impressive ego by the time she met Simon.

 

“And then you walked into my life, like a knight in shining armor, but instead of a white horse and a suit of clanking metal, you were cloaked in a Tom Ford suit and drove an Aston Martin.”

 

“Ha,” I say, which catches the attention of everyone around me. Oh shit. “Ha-ow amazing,” I say to recover. “Just amazing vows.” I lift my hand and give Annalisa a thumbs-up. She returns it with a murderous look.

 

But come on . . . Tom Ford and an Aston Martin?

 

What a load of crock.

 

More like heavily pocketed parachute pants and a 1993 Geo Metro without power steering.

 

“From a lonely, defeated, and confused part of my life, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, you lifted me up and resurrected me from the smoke and into the heavens.”

 

Jesus Christ.

 

So basically, I was Satan, strapping her down in hell, only for Simon to come swooping in like a glamorized Tarzan minus the loincloth to rescue her from the pits of purgatory.

 

I can feel the eyes of family and friends on me, and not because of my not-so-subtle guffaw but because most of these people know the truth.

 

I’m the reason Annalisa made it into the movies.

 

I’m the reason Simon got his big break.

 

And I’m the reason their latest flick was so well received—not only am I now a highly sought-after screenwriter, but I wrote the screenplay that made audiences fall in love with them.

 

So, the question is, Why am I standing here next to an ex–best friend who was nervous the Botox in his armpits wasn’t going to keep him from sweating through his suit on his wedding day, watching my ex-girlfriend heap praise on him—praise the double-crossing nitwit doesn’t deserve?

 

I shouldn’t have to stand here, supporting them.

 

The movie is done.

 

The press is over.

 

The audience has gone wild.

 

There’s nothing holding me back. The studio can’t offer me any more threats.

 

I put my time in.

 

Nothing making me stand at this altar and take this abuse.

 

So . . .

 

I decide to leave.

 

In that moment. I know it’s time to go.

 

I take a step forward as Annalisa stares up at Simon.

 

Then another step.

 

And another, which draws their attention.

 

Annalisa sizes me up with those crystal-blue eyes. “What are you doing?” she says through a clenched smile.

 

I clear my throat. “If you’ll excuse me, I must announce to the masses that I have better things to do than stand through this mockery.” Simon moves to the side so he can look at me in absolute horror. Hinging at my hips, I make a graceful bow—because it feels right—and when I straighten up, I lift both of my middle fingers, one for each of them. “I pray to the Holy Spirit that this marriage goes down in flames.”

 

I offer my apologies to the pastor for my straightforward verbiage with a quick wave, then spin on my heel and jog down the aisle while camera phones flash and a cacophony of whispers echo against the forty-foot vaulted ceiling. One particular camera flash—a light so deathly glaring it’s like looking directly at an eclipse—momentarily blinds me, making me stumble down the rose-petal-dotted aisle and step on the lace of one of my shoes.

 

Whoa boy. I nearly fall flat on my face. A litany of curse words flies from my mouth before I quickly regain my balance, courtesy of the second-to-last pew coming to my rescue.

 

Mentally praising God for the assist, I dip two fingers into the bowl of holy water resting just inside the entryway, throw a peace sign up to the big guy, and then push on the handle to the doors.

 

Not so gracefully—thank you, undone shoelace—I stumble out the cathedral doors as a wave of cameras flash, blocking me from my unscripted breakaway. But their greedy flashes quickly turn into disappointed clicks when they realize I’m not the much-anticipated newly united.

 

If only they knew the moment they just captured will bring a hefty price when the news hits—the fleeing groomsman. They’ll find out soon enough.

 

Spotting my escape vehicle, I jog down the stairs of the cathedral, only for my untied and ill-fitting shoe to slip off my foot midjog on the second-to-last step. The loss of footwear careens me into the stair rail, and I perform a spin move so epic, the greatest running back of all time would be jealous. Catching my balance, I glance back at the shoe just as Simon comes into view at the top of the steps, an expression of pure murder crossing his eyes.

 

Yikes, time to go.

 

Goodbye, shoe.

 

“Someone stop him!” Simon calls out dramatically, as if I’ve just stolen his wallet. And I take that moment to book it.

 

I run—well, hobble on shoe and socked foot—through the parking lot, all the way to my car, trailed by the few paparazzi smart enough to chase after me.

 

With cameras flashing through my tinted windows, I turn my car on and grip the steering wheel tight with one thing on my mind: time to get the hell out of here.

And just like that, with no plan attached to my lead foot, I drive.

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