Parking my car at the front of the four-story mansion, I gripped the steering wheel tightly as I wondered if coming back to my hometown was a good idea. I haven't placed a foot back on the town's soil for almost five years, and that would've continued if Elizabeth hadn't sent me an email a week before that contained information about her recent engagement.
My former girlfriend back in high school was getting married, and she wanted me to be the best man to her wedding. I was skeptical about the invitation since I thought the groom was the person who chose the best man, while the bride chose the maid of honor. However, times have changed, and I believed Beth's decision on who the best man was reflected that. Was I the best option should've been the real question to ask.
I looked at the mansion, and I wasn't surprised that this was the location of where the engagement party was taking place since Beth's fiancé belonged to one of the wealthiest families in the town. I mean, the mansion was in a gated neighborhood with guards at the entrance and numerous security cameras placed on every streetlamp. Also, the farther I drove, the larger the houses became, though, only less than twelve houses were in this neighborhood, the home of the town's elites. And at the very end of the winding street was the fiancé's mansion with an expansive front lawn that contained sculpted hedges and tall statues. They looked like chess pieces in the middle of a game judging by their random positions on the lush-green lawn.
Dozens of other cars were already parked on the stone driveway, and I checked the time on my phone to see that I arrived almost an hour late. I also received several unread text messages from Beth herself, which I could safely assume were about my whereabouts. I mean, would she be at all surprised that I decided to not appear at her engagement party, being her former boyfriend who unforgivably ended the relationship the day of high-school graduation? I was stunned when reading her email, the tone and diction of the message not indicating one bit that she had any remaining animosity towards me. And because of that, I had to drive almost three hours without going to any rest stops to be with her during the happiest time of her life. She certainly deserved it.
So, taking a deep inhale, I turned the ignition off and stepped out of my car while taking the present from the front passenger seat. Hearing joyful music coming from inside the mansion, I glanced at the sky where the sun was more than halfway down the horizon before beginning my approach. I didn't know what to wear exactly for the party, so I just opted for a plain buttoned shirt and pleated pants. I also had my blond hair combed, part at the side, and my face was clean shaven as well.
Stepping up onto the front porch, I then rang the doorbell. I waited for only a few seconds before the double-door entrance opened and who else but Beth appearing at the threshold. Seeing her again brought back so many memories, joyful ones that made me smile.
Beth looked the same and different as well. She still had her long, dark hair that was braided and hanging at the front of her right shoulder. She also was wearing a light application of makeup and a summer dress that emphasized her best features while keeping her modesty as well. She looked stunning, but the frown that developed on her face told me she wasn't as pleased to see me.
"You're late," Beth stated.
Scratching my head, I said, "Yeah. I'm sorry about that."
"An hour to be specific."
I bowed my head. "If you don't want me here, I understand. I'd be angry at me too."
Beth's stony face then cracked with a huge smile. She then stepped forward and gave me one of the strongest hugs I ever felt. I stumbled back a step before wrapping my arms around her body. We seemed to have stood together for more than a minute, but then Beth finally released her embrace and took a step back to look at me with the same bright smile on her face.
"I could never stay angry at you," Beth admitted.
"Really?" I asked, dumbfounded.
"Of course not, Rick. Regardless of what happened during graduation, I still remember the many other times we had as friends."
"Yeah…I enjoyed those times as well." I smiled. "Thank you for inviting me to your wedding."
"Of course… You look great by the way. The Big Apple obviously did good things for you."
"Thanks. Um…you look great too."
Beth just nodded with a giggle and then said, "Well, come inside. Everyone's already here."
I followed Beth and entered inside. I was introduced to a large foyer with a crystal chandelier and a curved stairway on both sides. The placed looked more like a downsized palace, and I wondered who else accommodated this mansion since I knew that Beth's fiancé was an only child based on the large family portrait by the left stairway. Seemed like a waste of space, but then again, I didn't grow in this type of environment, being middle class and all.
Beth led me to the living room that was just as large and was a mixture of old and modern styles with ornately designed furniture and the massive television that must've displayed 4K resolution. Everyone in the area was happily conversing with one another as plenty of servants walked around with wineglasses and appetizers on silver platters. I located the wooden coffee table where a tall stack of presents for the future bride and groom were. I quickly placed my present for Beth somewhere in the middle before returning to her side.
"Rick. I want to introduce you to Moira," Beth said, directing her hand to a middle-aged woman who was sitting on one of the three-seater couches.
"Hello," I greeted and extended my hand. "My name's Rick."
The woman, Moira, stood up and shook my hand. "Hello back."
"She's my wedding planner. She's going to plan my wedding... Obviously," Beth said before giggling.
"Oh, I know you. Your wedding agency is like one of the most sought after in the entire country. You also have that television show that's in its tenth season."
Smiling, Moira said, "I'm so glad to meet someone else who's cultured in the wedding business." Looking me up and down, she then said, "What's your relationship with Elizabeth?"
I looked at Beth who was glancing the other way, and I just said, "Oh. I'm just…her ex-boyfriend."
"I see… Well, it's good to know that Elizabeth has a great taste in men," Moira complimented with a wink.
I felt my face heat up.
Thankfully, Beth stepped in and said, "Moira already helped plan this engagement party, and you'll see her more as the wedding approaches." Waving her hand at someone, she then said, "I want to introduce you to two other people. I hope that's okay, Moira."
"Of course it is. I'll just be here enjoying another glass of wine," Moira said as a servant offered her another glass.
Beth pulled me by the wrist and guided me to the other side of the living room. Standing by the fireplace were two people who I instantly recognized as Beth's parents. I tried to halt my movement, but she continued to drag me forward with the same unforeseen strength she first displayed when we hugged.
"Mom. Dad. Guess who's back in town?" Beth said cheerfully.
Beth's mother's face brightened upon seeing me. "Oh, Rick! What a pleasant surprise." Stepping forward, she offered me a half hug and a gentle pat on the back.
I turned to Beth's father who had a stoic expression on his face, and I extended my hand, which he took after a moment of awkward silence. "Good to see you."
"Likewise," Beth's father said before returning to his drink.
"How long has it been? Five years, probably?" Beth's mother said. "How've you been since you moved away from this town? It's New York City you went to, correct?"
I nodded. "Yup. The City That Never Sleeps."
"What do you do there if you don't mind me asking?"
"Oh, um…just freelance work mostly… I also do gigs here and there to help pay the bills." I chuckled and said, "If there's one benefit, the hours are very flexible."
Beth's mother chuckled lightly. "Well, it's wonderful that you're back. Where are you staying by the way? I know your parents moved as well and sold your home."
"Oh, um… I don't know. I mean, I'll most likely just get a room at O'Leary's bed and breakfast."
"Oh, haven't you heard? That place isn't doing so well which is a shame since a year ago it was booming after the town was labeled as one of the best wedding locations in the country," Beth's mother informed me.
"And why's that?" I asked with concern.
"Well, I'm not the kind of person to gossip, but O'Leary was recently caught…with another man." Leaning forward, Beth's mother whispered, "Kissing to be specific."
I took a step back, completely flabbergasted by this revealing piece of gossip. I looked at Beth who had her head bowed and then at her father who was simply looking inside his now empty wineglass, seemingly disinterested by this revelation.
"So, for your own safety, I'd advise that you don't stay at that place, especially since his son is also acting up in school and has most likely joined a gang."
"Mom, we're in a small town where the nearest city is three hours away. He didn't join a gang," Beth retorted.
"Well, then how do you explain the choice of attire that boy decides to wear everywhere?" Beth's mother shook her head. "I pray for him and his father to see the light again…as well as your brother."
After that comment, we all just stood awkwardly in silence, while everyone else continued to chatter. I always knew Beth's mother held conservative views, but her comments about O'Leary and his son weren't warranted. Then again, I shouldn't have been shocked by her statement since the majority of the town also held those same beliefs to some degree. This truth was the reason why I left, to move to a vastly more progressive location where I was less likely to be ostracized for just being myself. And after my parents moved to Florida to enjoy an early retirement, I had no reason to come back…until I received that email from Beth of course.
Beth's father suddenly cleared his throat and said, "Well, it's good to meet you again, Rick. And I wish you the best when you return to New York City."
Beth patted her father's shoulder, and I smiled back in return. He wasn't a man of many words, but at least he knew when to diffuse a situation when it became too awkward like right after his wife's comments on O'Leary.
Grabbing my wrist again, I walked with Beth through a door and into the kitchen that was just as large as the living room. Cooks were busy making more appetizers with platters of finished food lying on the kitchen island. Beth casually grabbed what looked like sushi and popped it in her mouth. She then sighed and turned to me with what appeared to be an apologetic look.
Beth then said, "I'm sorry for my mother. Ever since my grandfather passed away, she has been attending church more often and protecting her bible like it's her third child."
"It's all right, Beth. People have the right to believe what they want," I said.
"True, but she didn't have to make those comments about O'Leary and his son…especially in front of you."
"It's okay. I mean, I'm sure she wouldn't have what she said if she knew about me." Popping a piece of food into my mouth, I then said, "How's your father?"
"Oh, same old, same old. Nothing new to report other than that he's trying to get Freddy to come back to town and get a job here. Apparently, the town's sheriff wants to retire, and he has special requirements for the position that no one has been able to fulfill."
"Oh, your brother's in the police force?"
"He is. Has been for almost five years now. Decided to go to the East Coast right after he graduated from the academy." Sighing, Beth then said, "And he was supposed to be here this morning, that's what he told me. But I guess being a police officer gives him a skewed perception of time." She then smiled at me and said, "But I'm glad you're here."
"Yeah, I'm glad to be back." Scratching my head, I then asked, "Um, if you don't mind me asking, what did your mom meant when she said she would pray for your brother?"
Beth opened her mouth to answer when a woman entered the kitchen and said, "Elizabeth. There's a cop car outside."
Beth mumbled something I couldn't interpret. "Don't worry. I think I know who the cop car belongs to."
Beth walked out of the kitchen with long strides, and I followed her out of curiosity on who the police officer was. In the living room, the commotion had somewhat died down with a few people looking through the tall windows. We both walked through the front entrance and onto the front porch. I saw a police cruiser that was parked on the green lawn instead of the driveway. A man then stepped out of the car with a smirk on his face.
"Liza! I'm so happy to see you again!"
Beth huffed. "A cop car? Really? You scared the guests, you know?"
"Yeah, sorry about that. My other car…eh, it's a long story."
"And you drove on the front lawn. Didn't the academy teach you about staying on the road? God, Freddy! What's wrong with you?"
I didn't believe the man standing by the police car was Freddy. With a full covering of dark stubble on his face and a body bulked with muscle, he certainly changed the last time I saw him.
"Sorry. There was nowhere else to park… Aren't you glad to see your big brother again?"
Sighing, Beth walked down the porch steps and stopped right in front of her brother, Freddy. "You can be such an ass sometimes…but of course I'm glad to see you again."
Beth then hugged her brother, and Freddy hugged back and took it an extra step by lifting her off her feet and twirling her around. She laughed and was quickly placed back onto her feet.
Releasing her, Freddy then said, "Wow. So, this is your fiancé's place."
"Indeed, it is. Come inside. Mom and Dad are here too."
"Oh, lovely," Freddy deadpanned.
Walking onto the front porch, Beth said, "Oh, Freddy. You remember Rick, right?"
I extended my hand out. "Hey, Freddy."
Freddy gave one look at me, and his smile dropped right after. "Oh. How could I not? You're the one who broke my little sister's heart. On her graduation day."
Freddy stood close to his sister, and I awkwardly lowered my hand in response.
"Oh, shut up, Freddy. That's all in the past now. And I obviously moved on since then," Beth stated. "Now get inside already. You told me you'd be here this morning."
"Sorry. There were some…delays," Freddy said, continuing to eye with furrowed eyebrows.
Beth just rolled her eyes and went back inside, leaving Freddy and I to continue standing on the front porch. Despite his cold demeanor towards me, I couldn't stop myself from admiring the strong features of his face. We were about the same height, though he was bulkier than me and was wearing clothing that were more formfitting as well.
"Why are you here?" Freddy suddenly asked.
"Oh, um… Beth invited me here…and she wants me to be the best man."
Freddy's eyes widened. He then sneered before stomping through the front entrance without saying another word. I wondered what I said exactly that caused him to react that way. All I knew was that my stay here was going to become much more complicated if the policeman continued to express his unwarranted animosity towards me. Though I couldn't deny I wanted to see more of him even if it was with a scowl on that handsome face of his.