“Do you take this man as your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do you part?”
It was always the same. Sometimes the priest conducting the ceremony would switch it up, which made it at least remotely interesting. Some of them were serious in their delivery, others cute, and some of them were just flat out unique in a sort of weird way, but this one was pretty run of the mill. All in all, it was a rather boring ceremony.
This was a normal wedding in a normal church with normal people who thought they were witnessing the happiest moment in two normal people’s lives.
It was all a lie. Every last wasted cent that went into this whole charade.
I was surrounded with more beauty and money than I could shake a stick at. My wedding dress was from some famous designer I couldn’t remember the name of, and it had come with a price tag of at least ten thousand dollars and that didn’t even include the veil, the lingerie beneath it, and the custom-made Louboutins on my feet. The church venue cost a great deal and so did all the flowers and decorations I’d demanded through the wedding planning process because I wanted what I want, and my groom’s bank account could afford it. He wanted to spoil me, and I let him.
I think this was my most expensive wedding to date and that was saying something.
If only they gave out trophies for that sort of thing.
“Do you take this woman as your lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold…”
Blah blah blah. I stopped listening to his voice and waited for what would come next.
The groom’s blue eyes danced with excitement. He thought this was all real, which meant that I’d done my job perfectly.
He was probably just excited for the honeymoon that he’d never have.
I’d be gone before he knew what to do with himself.
I’d lost count of how many weddings I’d been in; of how many times I’d been the blushing happy bride standing at the altar. I’d planned more than a dozen of them at this point. I’d worn pretty much every different style of wedding dress that I could find. I’d had every type of cake. I’d been married outdoors, in a church, in a country club, on a boat, and even in a barn. I’d had Michelin star catering at my reception, and I’d had an outdoor barbeque at another and then everything else there could possibly be in between.
The venue was unremarkable. It was pretty, but that’s really all it had going for it. The church was covered in red roses. His tux was black, but the bow tie matched the flowers that surrounded us. Pretty scarlet bows decorated the stained-glass church windows and at least one hundred people sat in the pews watching the two of us take our lifelong vows together.
They didn’t know that my name wasn’t Sophia Jackson, that it was really Willow Rose, or that there wasn’t a single one of them who would see my face ever again.
Especially Dean Waterhouse.
This was going to hit him the hardest.
You see, he thought I was his perfect match. Each of my marks always did. I changed my look, my accent, and my behavior for each one of them. Sometimes that meant that my hair color was different, or I did my makeup to look like someone else, or that my entire wardrobe was modified to exactly what they would like. The people I worked for had deep pockets and they wanted to make sure I had everything I needed to do my job flawlessly.
Those blue eyes sparkled as they searched mine. Afraid that I’d let the ruse fall for a second, I smiled warmly in his direction and his lips turned up with joy. The corners of his eyes crinkled, and I was positive that this was the happiest day of his life.
“I love you,” he whispered.
“I love you too,” I mouthed back. I kissed the tip of my forefinger and held it up in the air. It had been our little thing ever since he’d taken me out on his yacht when he’d asked me out on a second date.
Like we’d found each other when the other was lost, beacons of hope no matter the direction of the wind.
Dean liked the cheesy stuff. The sweeter the better so I poured it on like rain.
Dean had been one of my easier marks. I could mostly be myself around him, which was pretty convenient. It was always the toughest when I had to become something of a persona. The last one had liked French girls and it had been some serious work to make sure I never dropped the accent, not even once.
Before I’d even met him, I knew that Dean liked his woman to be independent, feisty, and a real go-getter. He enjoyed when I pushed him, and he especially liked it when I put myself in charge in the bedroom. He was sweet and gentle, always buying me gifts and taking me to expensive dinners whenever he could get time off work at his Fortune 500 software corporation that cleared several billion dollars a year.
It’s what bought the five-carat diamond engagement ring on my left hand and the diamond-encrusted wedding band he was sliding onto my finger right now.
Dean liked to be a sugar daddy of sorts and I was just the sort of fixer upper that he adored taking care of.
Before I even bumped into my marks, I studied them extensively. I scoured social media and the tabloids for indications of what they liked. I tailed them for more than a week at a time just to understand who they were and what they wanted in and out of the bedroom, and I was really good at it.
Dean was a very rich man, which meant that he would be a very rich payday for me. It had been less than six months since I’d accidentally knocked into him and spilled his coffee before I insisted on buying him a new one. We’d spent at least four hours together that morning and the whirlwind romance hadn’t stopped since.
I hadn’t let it.
He reached for me and took my hands in his. His hands were firm, dwarfing mine as he squeezed gently.
I slid his own wedding band on his left hand and didn’t meet his eyes. For some reason, the gleeful excitement in his face was something I couldn’t bear to see right now.
Instead I took a deep breath, stared at the floor, and feigned a nervous look, playing the part of an anxious bride.
Get it together, Willow. You’re fucking better than this.
“Then I now pronounce you man and wife,” the priest declared, his voice resolute and firm.
The crowd watching roared and applauded with approval. The beautiful tune of a violin sang above us, and Dean took my hand in his and held it up high in the air, putting us on display together in front of everyone watching.
Every one of them were his guests. No one was there for me.
No one ever was.
I smiled and painted my face with the joy they all expected to see. I just had to play the blissful bride for a little longer before I could disappear forever and move onto my next job.
After the ceremony, my wedding planner rushed me back to the bridal suite for a wardrobe change for the reception to follow. Whenever possible, I liked to avoid the man I married on the day of the ceremony as much as I could. It minimized the chances of getting found out at the last minute. I couldn’t have that.
My record was perfect. Each job was ridiculously expensive and horrendously time-consuming, but I nailed each one every time.
It was a special sort of talent to be a con woman like me. My skills were dangerous to the rich, no matter what was between their legs. Man or woman, they were all the same.
They all wanted to fall in love.
They all yearned for a best friend.
They all dreamed of the perfect fucking fairy tale.
They wanted it all and I gave them everything they could ever wish for.
Over and over again, because at the end of the day, I didn’t really have a choice. The moment I stopped, I was as good as dead. The organization I worked for didn’t tolerate even an ounce of disobedience and I really didn’t want to find out what it felt like to take a bullet between the eyes.
With a heavy sigh, I fingered the scarlet lace of the racy number I had planned to wear that was waiting for me on its hanger. There was a knock on the door, and I raised my voice just high enough to tell them to enter. My wedding planner’s assistant smiled, and I nodded in greeting. Time to step into Sophia’s persona again.
“Jenny,” I said lightly.
“Sophia,” she replied far too happily. “Are you ready to get out of your wedding dress?”
“I thought you’d never ask. Wearing this mermaid gown is work on my legs,” I laughed, and she chuckled right on cue.
“I wore a similar style at my wedding too. By the end of the day, my inner thighs wanted to scream, but the pictures were beautiful. I just know yours will be too,” she replied.
She was far too fucking cheery.
With a fake happy sigh, I slid my fingers along the soft red lace. Jenny turned me just enough so that she could begin unbuttoning the long line of tiny silk-wrapped buttons that cascaded down the length of my spine. I looked in the mirror one last time, taking in the intricately embroidered sweetheart neckline and slim waist. The fit was perfect, showcasing the gentle curve of my hips and my long lean legs. The embroidery was light pink in contrast to the stark white silk and wrapped down the length of the dress all the way to the hem at my feet in an explosion of color. It was as if I was covered in a bouquet of flowers from my head to my toes.
Like cherry blossoms drifting on the wind.
I had to admit that it was one of the prettier dresses I’d ever worn and even though the ceremony was boring by my standards, I wouldn’t forget that look of pure adoration Dean had when the priest had pronounced us man and wife.
I shook my head.
“Just another minute. There’s a lot of buttons,” Jenny said curtly.
“Did we clock how long it took to get me dressed this morning?”
“At least an hour and that most definitely didn’t include makeup and hair.”
“I imagine Lola has a schedule?” Lola was my wedding planner.
“Yeah. She’s on top of everything like that. We had a big meeting yesterday to make sure everything was perfect for your big day,” she continued.
“Do you do a lot of weddings?” I asked, wanting to fill the air with conversation rather than the sad void of my own lonely mind.
“Yes. Somewhere between three to five a week, except for this week. Dean paid enough to clear our schedule so that we could focus entirely on you,” Jenny added.
Of course he did.
“That was sweet of him,” I whispered.
“He loves you,” she answered, sounding all chipper, happy, and kind.
“I know,” I replied, not having the heart to return the sentiment. If she noticed, she didn’t say anything at all.
Her fingers worked down the middle of my back, and when she finally reached the bottom of those cursed buttons I felt like I could draw the first full breath of air into my lungs since the crack of dawn that morning.
“There now. Just a few more,” she murmured.
When she carefully pushed the dress down my hips, I stayed still until I was able to gracefully step out of the expensive gown. Quickly, she hung the dress back up and smoothed out any wrinkles before she turned back to see me already slipping the stretchy red lace up my legs. I pulled it up into place and turned for her. She zipped it up and straightened it a bit to hide the fancy white lingerie set I was wearing beneath.
She unclipped my hair and it cascaded down my back in waves. Part of my up-do was still intact and when I glanced in the mirror, I realized it was really quite beautiful. I’d have to get my hair done like that again.
Not at my next wedding of course. I’d have to do something else.
Jenny touched up my red lipstick and swept a little bit of setting powder on my nose. When she was done, she smiled in appreciation.
“Perfection. Dean won’t know what hit him,” she said.
“No, he definitely won’t,” I whispered. She really had no idea how accurate of a statement that would be.
For a moment, she let me admire myself in the mirror before she beckoned me back to the door.
“The reception is already in full swing. They’re already clamoring for dinner, the cake, and especially for the wedded couple’s first dance,” she beamed.
Oh, right. I’d forgotten about that.
I grinned nervously and she shook her head.
“No need to be nervous. You’ll be perfect. I’ve seen the two of you dance. You’re magic together,” she said confidently.
I really was too good at getting people to believe whatever I wanted them to.
Too fucking good.
I giggled with contrived giddiness as I took the arm she was offering and strode to the door. She guided me down a few lesser used hallways to the back of the reception hall where I planned to make a rather big second entrance into the biggest after-party I’d ever planned.
Once we arrived at the elegantly carved wooden doors, Jenny opened them with a flourish. The dim hue of red and pink lights flittered across the landing, spiraling down the marble staircase and casting an otherworldly glow. I took a step out to see everyone seated at their respective table, the ones Dean and I had worked on for hours together in order not to seat Auntie Laura next to Uncle Joe because they’d had some sordid affair together that pissed off his parents, among numerous other issues he informed me of along the way.
Family drama was really quite amusing.
The crowd applauded as I walked down the stairs, careful not to slip in my red-bottomed shoes. Once I was at ground level, Dean swept in from the right side and curled his arm around my waist before pulling me into a deep kiss.
I pressed my lips against his, playing the part of a happily married bride.
Very soon, I’d turn his world upside down.
He pulled back and smiled down at me, his regal blue eyes dazzling. He was such a good person, so giving and kind. I knew it gave him great pleasure to see me smile so that’s what I did.
I usually didn’t feel guilty for doing my job.
With him though, it was beginning to take its toll.
If I had a choice, I’d stay. But I didn’t. The two of us were never fated to be one and I just had to accept that.
For once, I allowed myself to really enjoy the wedding reception. There was an open bar and endless glasses of champagne. The cake was especially delicious and when the time came for the tables to be cleared, the excited energy of the crowd rose along with the music.
The first few beats of Passenger’s ‘Let Her Go’ played over the speakers and I drew in a shaky breath.
I don’t know why that song spoke to me. Maybe it was romantic. Maybe it said something about me, but none of it really mattered. Dean offered me his hand and I took it. The two of us strolled onto the dance floor and the sound of our song echoed throughout the room.
The dance had been choreographed. It was something he wanted to do, and I’d jumped at the chance. He’d hired one of the top choreographers in the country for private lessons together, which gave me even more time with him to deepen the whole ploy.
“Only know you love her when you let her go.”
His eyes held mine and in them, I saw how steadfast, strong, and perfect he was. Dean was the kind of man I’d love to call mine, but I knew I would never be allowed such things. A life like mine didn’t allow for love or even the smallest bit of happiness.
My life was work. Every day. Every hour. Every minute.
Within a week, I’d be onto the next mark with a new city, a new name, and a new life, and I’d never get to look into those soulful eyes again. I’d never see him again after this was all over.
I memorized his face. His angular jaw just covered by the lightest stubble that I adored so much. His exotically high cheekbones and the thick eyelashes that framed those ocean blue depths. I studied the dimples in his cheeks that only came out when he smiled at me and that cute little birthmark by his left eye that crinkled a little bit when he laughed.
We flew across the dance floor and I swung my hips in tune with the music, listening to the gentle strum of the guitar and the soft notes of the piano beat deep into my soul.
“And you let her go.”
Dean had wanted to know why I’d chosen this song and I’d told him it was simply because I liked it. He hadn’t asked why but as the song ended and he pulled me in for a deep kiss, I finally realized what it was.
It was my way of saying goodbye. Maybe he’d realize it long after I was gone.
I kissed him as I would kiss a lover because he was the closest thing that I was ever going to have to one. Our tongues danced together, and the audience cheered, but I was lost in that kiss, lost in the gentle feeling of his fingers on my bare shoulders and lost in that ghostly apparition of love that I was so desperate to experience just once in my life.
When he finally pulled away, I resigned that part of myself and locked it away deep into my soul. It was something that I would never allow myself to feel again.
I smiled so wide that my cheeks hurt and curled close to Dean’s chest.
“You’re so beautiful, Sophia. Thank you for making me the happiest man in the world,” he whispered as he held me. After the song ended, he rushed me over to the bar. He gestured to the bartender, demanding that he pour me the most expensive glass of champagne that he could buy, which was really quite silly because it was an open bar.
Within moments, he slipped a glass of something bubbly and pink into my fingers. I took a sip and grinned, enjoying the flavors of rosé and champagne meeting as one in a fizzy concoction that made my mouth water.
“Do you like it?” he asked, and I nodded fervently. “Keep that bottle on ice, bartender,” he grinned, and the man chuckled behind the bar.
Dean and I found a quiet corner with a comfortable loveseat and took a moment to just revel in the sight of the attendees enjoying themselves. The DJ was one of the best and it showed. With flawless effort and skill, he meshed one song smoothly into the next, building the tempo and the energy of the crowd long into the night.
The rest of the night passed by smoothly and Dean was gentlemanly enough not to even smash cake in my face like so many others had. I appreciated that. Cake frosting and expensive bridal makeup just didn’t mix.
When the hour grew late enough, Jenny swept me away yet again to put me in comfy clothes so that the two of us could escape to the airport where Dean’s private jet was waiting to fly us to our destination honeymoon in the Maldives.
Exhausted, I fell asleep in the oversized seat and I was only vaguely aware of the fact that Dean had covered me up with a blanket.
That was sweet of him. He’d probably regret that soon too.
When we landed, there were people waiting with handcrafted cocktails on the pier as we climbed out of the small seaplane that we’d boarded after his jet had brought us most of the way. A small group of two women and a man were quick to drape purple flowers over our heads before a rather lavish golf cart pulled up to bring us to our private beachside retreat. The two of us climbed on the back and I grasped at Dean’s hand, squeezing it tight with excitement as the cart whirred away. We drove for a good fifteen minutes into the dense jungle down a well-kept dirt road, and when we arrived I gasped at what I saw.
A two-story bungalow was hidden amongst the trees. Behind it was the great expanse of a beach with jewel-toned clear water lapping at the perfect white sands. I wanted to dip my toes into the water right away.
It was absolutely paradise, a secret luxury getaway with all the privacy and amenities a newly married couple could ever need.
It had been his idea. I’d agreed wholeheartedly.
I’d always wanted to see the Maldives.
Another golf cart drove up behind us with our luggage and followed us to the front door. It was unlocked and when we walked inside, we were greeted with the delightful aroma of candles and fragrant flowers in beautiful vases spread all over the room. There was an assortment of delicious-looking chocolates and fruits set out on platters on the birch wood table across from the kitchen. Those accompanying us were quick in their work and disappeared once we were settled, leaving Dean and me all alone together.
“There’s a full restaurant just a short ride away if you want something like that. There’s also room service. You can have whatever you want, my beautiful wife. Just ask and you shall receive,” Dean said. He loved being able to provide for me like that. I didn’t respond because I was enamored with our lodging enough that I couldn’t think of anything to say.
I strolled through the bungalow, enjoying the natural tropical feel. Once I reached the back, my mouth opened in shock at the full gorgeous sight of the beach. There was no one on it. We were the only ones out here. Complete and utter privacy.
I could walk down the beach totally naked and he’d be the only one to see.
“Wow,” I whispered.
“This is the honeymoon suite. There isn’t anyone else close by for at least a mile. Do you know what that means, my pretty bride?” he murmured.
“What’s that?” I smirked coyly.
“It means you can scream as loud as you want tonight because there’s no one but me to hear you,” he teased, and I chuckled before I rushed out and kicked off my shoes, wanting to feel what the sand felt like between my toes.
He followed me and his arms wound around my waist, pulling me close. Casually, he kissed my neck as the wind whipped my long hair around my face.
I turned my head and pressed my lips against his.
It would be one last night. One more night of playing this sordid game.
I was going to enjoy myself and by the time the sun rose in the morning, I would be gone.
Dean didn’t want to rush to our wedding night. Instead, he insisted on taking me to a candlelit white tablecloth dinner at the fancy restaurant complete with freshly caught seafood and the best crème brûlée I’d ever had the privilege to taste. He fed me bites of his dinner and I fed him some of mine. We talked about our visions of the future, what we wanted in our house together, the places in the world I wanted to see, anything and everything and in the end, nothing really at all because those weren’t my dreams.
They were all his dreams. Perfectly tailored responses that I’d prepared just for him long before tonight.
When the dinner ended, we walked along the beach back to our bungalow under the romantic glow of the moon and the endless glittering stars in the sky. It was slow and punctuated by long patches of silence, but it felt natural all the same.
His fingers on mine were like a breath of fresh air. For a while, I allowed myself to pretend it was all real because I genuinely enjoyed his company. Would this be what it felt like to be married? Is this what it would be like to be happy?
When we returned to the bungalow, the main floor was awash in flickering candlelight and when we walked up the wooden spiral staircase, I gasped at the rose petals strewn all over the surface of the plush white comforter on the massive king-sized bed. It was all very romantic. Even a girl like me could appreciate something like this.
Dean’s fingers flittered along the naked skin of my throat until he wrapped his arms around my chest and pulled me close. I sighed and breathed in the scent of him, his citrusy cologne enveloping me in a warm embrace that settled me, at least for the moment.
I’d remember that scent. I’d remember all of this.
Just one last night. I’d enjoy all of this for just one night.
His hands were gentle as he grasped the edges of my thin sweater. I was intensely aware of the threadbare fabric scraping along my skin, every single nerve on fire from the promise of his touch.
When it came to Dean, I’d faked a lot of things, but never this. When it came to our physical chemistry, the two of us were fire. Many of my marks were clumsy and quite terrible in bed, but not him. Never him.
With every touch, he made me catch my breath. Every kiss left me begging for more.
He was a man obsessed with making me orgasm. He’d always said I was the prettiest when I came for him and that made this particular job more enjoyable than all the others.
His movements were sweet as he slowly removed my clothes. He didn’t rush as he turned me to face him, just lightly dragging his fingers along my skin. His touches were teasing, and my nipples pebbled hard beneath the safety of my bra.
I reached for him and he brushed my hands away gently.
“I want to see you first. Will you let me?” he asked, and I bit my lip. Hesitantly, I nodded, and I let him do as he pleased. He’d never hurt me, and he was always exceptionally sweet, so I trusted him.
Shame he couldn’t trust me.
He lifted my shirt over my head, and I shuddered as a chill raced over my skin. It was quite warm, so it wasn’t from the cold. Instead, it was intricately connected to the look in his eyes as they danced over the bare skin of my belly.
I smirked and teasingly traced my fingers over the shadow along his jaw, feeling the rough edges of his growing beard. It was short, but long enough so that when he dragged it along my skin, I shivered with need.
I was going to enjoy this.
He slid those knowledgeable hands behind my back, unclipping my bra with ease. I shuddered hard and his fingers dipped down to push my flowy cotton pants down my hips.
“White lace. Very becoming on my bride,” he whispered in my ear, his breath hot against my neck. I moaned softly, stepping out of my sandals as he pushed my slacks down to my ankles. I lifted one foot and then the other as he helped me climb out of them.
In just my panties now, I stepped away from him and sat down on the bed. He watched me with a quizzical look as I slid back amongst the flower petals. Leaning back on my elbows, I spread my legs, putting myself on display for him.
His gaze was electric. It only took that single look to set my skin on fire with fervent need.
I smiled and cocked my head.
He took a step toward the bed. For a moment, his eyes turned dark, and I could have sworn I saw a flash of anger cross his features, although it was gone before I could be sure. It was so unlike him that I sat up an inch to look closer, but he was already kneeling at the end of the bed with fingers sliding along my thighs and a wicked grin on his lips.
“You’re such a tease, my pretty bride,” he said, and I cocked my head with a smirk.
“Perhaps,” I answered, and he slipped his hands up around my hips. Boldly, he jerked my underwear down, and the fabric pinched me a little as he bared me.
That was rougher than usual. He’d never been rough with me before.
And then it was gone. Sweet, gentle Dean smiled up at me with a mischievous look that hid everything I’d thought I’d seen in an instant. I returned the smirk and he chuckled knowingly.
“I want to see you,” he said softly.
He dragged my panties down my legs and kissed up the length of my right thigh. By the time he pressed his lips to my pussy, I was already panting with need for him.
He’d always been especially good with his tongue.
“Lay back, my pretty bride. I want to hear you scream for me tonight.”
The night had been perfect. His tongue had worked at the cusp of my thighs for what felt like forever and I came for him several times before we made love like the perfect story book couple.
I tried to enjoy myself but now that it was so close to ending, the whole thing simply felt hollow. My orgasms were good, and I was satisfied by the time he fell asleep beside me, yet it still felt like something was missing. When his breathing was steady, I slipped out of bed, my bare feet padding silently against the floor.
I’d packed my laptop in my luggage, and I dug around until I found it. He was still fast asleep when I peeked inside the bedroom again, so I sat down at the kitchen table and booted it up. He didn’t know it, but I’d hacked his computer at his house. I’d stolen every one of his passwords.
It was time to get to work.
I cleaned out his bank account, his savings, his stocks, and maxed out all of his credit cards. I logged into the financial servers of his company and cleaned that out too. By tomorrow, his company would be in full ruin. I took everything he had, and I left nothing behind. I transferred everything to an offshore account that had been set up especially for me before this all began. By the time I was finished, he had nothing left.
After that, I dressed quickly, pulling on dark clothes. My jeans were gray and stretchy and my tank top was black. I didn’t even bother with underwear. No one was going to see my naked body for the next few days. When I was finally ready, I gathered a few more things and stuffed them all into a dark backpack. With a heavy sigh, I slung it on my back.
I took out the envelope I’d hidden in the secret compartment of my laptop case and crept silently inside the master suite. Without making a single sound, I laid it on the pillow next to him.
I knew what it said.
It was a confession. It would tell him what I’d done, how I’d married him for his money and that I was going to disappear. It said that Sophia Jackson was nothing but a ruse that he’d never have the good fortune to see again. The note would tell him to move on. It would also warn him not to look for me unless he wanted to die.
With a quiet breath, I tiptoed out of the room, but I couldn’t help myself as I peered inside once more.
Still sleeping, Dean looked like the perfect picture of innocence. His five o’clock shadow had grown thicker. His dark eyelashes framed his eyes, just touching the upper curves of his cheeks, and I wanted to reach out to touch him.
I wished I could freeze time and keep this moment to myself, but I knew better than that. By morning, he would find the note. He wouldn’t believe it at first. No one did. He’d log in to all of his accounts. He’d think there was a glitch and he’d call them all.
It would be no mistake though.
I’d been the one to take all his money. I’d been the one who left him with nothing.
By the time the sun set, his initial disbelief would turn to anger and eventually that fury would morph into hatred.
It always ended this way.
With one last furtive glance, I turned away and left the bungalow, disappearing into the shadows of the night where my own private transportation was waiting for me.
Dean would never see me again.
And that made me want to cry.