Some weddings, even when the couple are clearly made for one another, go off the rails from the very beginning. Maria Sali knew she should turn this one down; she could feel it in her bones. She even knew that her former boss and mentor Heather would have turned it down flat. She could hear Heather’s voice in her head. “No amount of reputation you can get from taking a job like that one is worth the negative word-of-mouth when they blame you because the MOB falls down in the aisle, or the hors d’oeuvres are lukewarm on the third pass, or the priest messes up the groom’s name.”
But Maria had only had her own wedding-planning business for a year. She was only twenty-four. This society wedding would pay, and it would open doors to others—the kind that Heather Carrington had started doing only after being in the business for years and years.
She convinced herself that Emily Easton and Albright Allerton were only having a bad day. She convinced herself that Priscilla Allerton, the MOG, was much too well-bred to ruin anything the way only an MOG can. Maria could see with complete clarity the difficulty of the unique situation that meant Priscilla would also serve in the capacity of MOB, because of Emily’s own mother—one of Priscilla’s best friends—having died the previous year, but she convinced herself it would be a unique benefit rather than a unique pain-in-the-backside.
She took one look at Jason Garrons, the FOB. The step-FOB, rather; the actual FOB, Pierpont ‘Chip’ Easton, having been on an extended cruise of the Mediterranean for the past several years, with multiple lovely young models, and unwilling to return for something as mundane as the wedding of his eldest daughter.
Jason Garrons, only thirty-eight. Self-made billionaire philanthropist turned politician, quite possibly the best-connected man in New England whose family hadn’t arrived on the Mayflower, sat on the elegant Second-Empire couch next to Priscilla. He looked more amused than irritated by his stepdaughter’s behavior, at least as of this moment. He also looked so incredibly hot in his black silk jacket and pink Oxford shirt that Maria had no trouble seeing why Emily’s mother, most eligible divorcee in Boston at the time, had fallen so hard for him, if Heather’s account was correct.
Priscilla, Jason’s relaxed posture seemed to say, might get as high and mighty as she wanted, and Emily might behave like an utter spoiled brat, but how much aggravation could a wedding really be, in the end, as long as you had enough money to throw at it?
A very great deal, Mr. Garrons, Maria thought, as hard as she could, trying she supposed to send the idea to him on a brainwave. If he would step in here—Maria grimaced inwardly at the play on words, given how notorious a problem stepparents always were—he might actually do some good, and get things off to at least a decent start, rather than the rolling disaster Maria could see had already started to come apart before it even got up to speed.
Maybe she decided then—subliminally, anyway—that eventually Jason would have to put his foot down, since he was paying for the wedding. Maybe she had an instinct, though of course instincts could always betray a person, that the Easton/Allerton wedding, to be booked for June sixth if Trinity church and the Park Plaza were available, couldn’t actually be the catastrophe for everyone involved that it looked like on March fifteenth.
“Emily, dear,” Priscilla said, “if you decide the wedding has to be on June sixth, you have to be flexible about the location.” Priscilla looked to Maria for help, but in the patrician expression Maria could see the same reluctance to trust the young wedding planner that Maria had sensed in their initial handshake. Heather had told Priscilla firmly that she had retired, but that Priscilla must call Heather’s protégée Maria Sali.
“We’ll do our best,” Maria said, intending to add the but Priscilla is right, but Emily cut her off, making—Maria felt sure—Priscilla think that Maria had actually meant to promise the bride something she couldn’t promise. How could this be going so badly?
“Albright, sweetie, you really want the reception to be at the Park Plaza, don’t you?” Emily asked in a wheedling voice. The nineteen-year-old college junior, clearly ready to cut any remaining apron strings that attached her to her sad past, and clearly rushing into this marriage however well-suited she and the groom might be, turned to Maria. “We went to my friend Chloe’s wedding there last year, and it was soooo gorgeous.”
Well, yes. Maria had done ninety percent of the work on the Dabney wedding, but she couldn’t say so because no one was supposed to know how much Heather had delegated to her.
“I worked on that wedding,” Maria said, knowing how badly this would end, but unable to keep from at least showing her pride in her work.
Emily smiled a patronizing smile that seemed to mirror Priscilla’s. Wow, these rich people start their condescending expressions young, Maria thought.
“Then you know what I mean,” she said, clearly trying to be sweet. “It’s got to be at the Park Plaza. It’s like the only thing Albright cares about.” She cast moony eyes back at the groom, who wore a fixed smile as if he knew that getting married was going to involve these moments, and he wanted to get married, so he would smile in the meeting with the wedding planner. Heather’s briefing on the twenty-two-year-old Albright ‘Quint’ Allerton the Fifth said he was a sailor’s sailor, and not unintelligent, having graduated the previous year from Dartmouth.
“Well,” he said after a moment, clearly not sure whether a man who opened his mouth in this kind of meeting was taking his life into his own hands.
That was as far as he got, though, because Priscilla said, fully exasperated now, and plainly not just with Emily but with everyone in the room, with Maria at fault for the entire incipient debacle, “Then wait a month or two to have the wedding, so you can get the Park Plaza.”
“But it has to be the sixth, Priscilla,” Emily said petulantly. “It has to. Georgia’s going to Paris for the whole summer, on the eighth. You know that.”
Georgia Easton, Emily’s eighteen-year-old sister, maid of honor by right.
“Jason,” said Priscilla, appealing to the stepfather. “You can fly Georgia back in August, can’t you?”
“No,” Emily said even more petulantly. “He can’t. Georgia’s program is full immersion. I told you that. And I want to be a June bride.”
The phenomenon of a sweet young bride turning into a monster represented both a very well-worn cliché and a daily reality for Maria. She already had a very great deal of experience, from her apprenticeship, with dealing with girls who made her long for the days of old-fashioned loving discipline. Emily Easton’s doubtless pert backside would benefit greatly from being turned over her fiancé’s knee and given a sound spanking.
Quint Allerton bore not the slightest resemblance to the sort of fiancé who might do that. The thought, though, stirring in Maria, made her glance at Jason and wonder. She felt the tiniest degree of heat creep into her cheeks, and thanked heaven for her Mediterranean complexion. If Priscilla saw her face flush, she would probably take it for a sign of weakness. Priscilla Allerton, still one of the most beautiful women of the Boston social scene at forty-two, didn’t look like she had blushed in twenty years.
“Emily,” Jason said, with decision but no exasperation, “something is going to have to give, here. Neither the church nor the room is available.”
“But I thought that’s why we were here,” Emily protested, looking over at Priscilla, and then quickly at Quint, as if to make sure he still was paying attention without really paying attention—the state that a bride of her type, on the verge of becoming a monster, generally prefers in her groom. “I thought you said that Maria would be able to fix it.”
Maria had to use every ounce of willpower in her five-foot-three-inch body to keep her eyes from rolling back into her head. Unable to help herself, she darted a look at Jason again, and found him looking steadily back at her with a faint air of amusement. The heat came back into her cheeks. Nightmare. This would be a nightmare. But surely Jason will put a stop to this.
Priscilla spoke next, in a tone betraying a good deal of frustration that Maria could tell was directed mostly against Maria, the one blameless person in the room. “I said that Mrs. Carrington said she thought Maria might be able to help.” The matron looked at Maria meaningfully. At that moment, Maria almost declined the business.
But Jason said, “Priscilla, I think you aren’t understanding what Maria said, and neither are you, Emily. Really, you’re not understanding what Maria didn’t actually say, but what she meant, when she said that it would be difficult to negotiate for what you want, Emily.”
Maria flashed him a grateful smile, and decided right then that she would be able to do this job, since he was involved. The way he had looked at her, and his incredible hotness, didn’t have anything to do with it. Nothing at all.
“What did she mean, then?” Emily demanded.
“Ask Maria,” Jason said calmly. “I feel certain she’ll tell you.”
“Well?” Emily said, fixing her blue eyes on Maria and giving every indication that she had grown up in a house full of servants.
“I meant,” Maria said, as calmly as she could, “that it would cost a good deal of money, as a premium, to get the church and the hotel to persuade the people who currently have the reservations to change them.”
Emily’s eyes went wide. She turned instantly to Jason. “Jaaason?” she said in a voice that suggested she had employed it with great success for at least the past fifteen years. “Pleeease?”
Maria didn’t know whether she wanted to vomit or laugh. She did study Jason Garrons’ face very closely, though. She could tell that the reason Emily had obviously gotten her way so very often in the past didn’t have anything to do with the wide-eyed little-girl wheedling she thought had made everything happen for her. Instead, Maria could see very clearly that Jason gave Emily her way out of a mixture of sheer exasperation and a good deal of guilt that the girl’s mother wouldn’t be present to see her beloved Ivy-League eldest married.
“Of course,” Jason said. “Maria, you’ll let me know how much?”
Maria nodded. “I will. I can’t guarantee that I’ll succeed, but I’ll let you know by tonight.”
“But it’s a Saturday,” Priscilla said, frowning. “Those offices won’t be open.”
“I’ll let you know by tonight,” Maria repeated. And I will succeed, on the basis of Jason’s wallet. Frank at the plaza wouldn’t be thrilled to get a call on the weekend; Maria might have to ask Heather to do that. Martha at Trinity would be kind, the way she always was, and not mind a bit.
“Thank you sooo much, Jason,” Emily said. For a moment Maria could see that this bride really did have a very charming side to her nature. Emily looked at Quint, sitting next to her, and took his hand. “Does that make you happy, Albright?”
Quint kissed her chastely and sweetly. “Yes.” He too turned to Jason. “Thanks so much. It means a lot.”
Jason smiled. Maria suspected he understood exactly what she herself could see: Quint Allerton had tried to show an interest in his wedding, and had told Emily that he thought the Park Plaza had looked really great for the Dabney wedding. Emily had decided that they therefore must have it, and had set it before herself as one of those silly tests of love brides are always making for themselves: if we have the reception where my groom wants it, then I really love him, don’t I?
“You’re welcome, Quint,” Jason said. “Happy to do it.”
“Please call him Albright,” Emily said. “Quint is from that shark movie.”
Maria caught Quint rolling his eyes.
Jason Garrons had never even considered spanking his stepdaughters before. He had parented them only very lightly when their mother was alive, and not much more strictly afterwards, to respect Anne’s wishes—the wishes that represented practically the only thing he and his beautiful late wife had ever fought about.
Jason himself had had a strict upbringing, and he credited it with a good deal of his success, and in particular the rapidity of it.
“But Emily and Georgia don’t have the struggle in front of them that you did,” Anne had said. Though she welcomed it, generally, when he put his foot down—their dominance-and-submission relationship having been the foundation of their love—she made it clear that her daughters by the ne’er-do-well Chip Pierpont lay wholly within her own purview.
Nor had Jason really objected, since he had not grown up in a setting remotely resembling the brownstone and the beach house in which his stepdaughters were flowering into beautiful young women—not to mention the elite private school at which they had learned with more certainty every day that the world would be their oyster. Their school led to the Ivy League, and the Ivy League led to New York for a few years, unless you had already accepted a proposal from a boy who had gone to a school exactly like yours, and probably only five or ten miles away. Emily had gone the latter route; Georgia seemed destined for at least a few years of freedom in New York.
Jason had made it to the Ivy League, of course, but he had taken a path that Anne Easton could hardly comprehend, no matter how much it had clearly put her in awe of him from the very beginning—nor how much it aroused her when the boy from the wrong side of the tracks put the Mayflower descendant over his knee for a sound spanking. He had given those spankings at first out of his own contrasting need to conquer the stuck-up assholes of the Brahmin society that lingered in the oak-paneled rooms that now sat, incongruously, dozens of stories high in the shiny skyscrapers that marked the Boston skyline. To have the bad girl of the blue-bloods, the girl who had run away with the eligible bachelor for just long enough to get pregnant twice, bare bottom up and moaning in disciplinary and erotic submission to him fired Jason’s blood more than he had ever imagined it could be fired.
Neither of them had expected how Jason would, with his firm hand, bring out a sweet, innocent side of Anne Easton that she had hardly known she still had, nor how Jason would find himself utterly at the mercy of that shy, kind girl and completely consumed by the need to take care of her. Then the cancer had come and deprived them of the years they had expected to have together, of love and of darker passions. Jason had felt, despite the agony of his grief, that his ability to give Anne every good thing in her final days, to make her every promise for which she had pleaded on behalf of her daughters, made good both on his hardscrabble life and on her aristocratic one: Emily and Georgia would lack for nothing.
Now, in the office of the extremely diverting and unexpectedly young and gorgeous Maria Sali, he wondered whether he had lost his way, with regard to the girls, just a little. Should he have enabled Emily’s wish to have everything exactly as she wanted, with regard to this wedding? Surely if it were right to spoil her at all, it was most appropriate and least harmful to do it when she became a bride?
At least things seemed to have begun to take a smoother course. He looked over at Quint and winked. Quint’s lips twitched, and he clearly had a serious struggle not to laugh.
“You’re a good man, Albright Allerton,” Jason had said to him the night Quint had dutifully come by the house on Arlington Street, the visit demanded of both men by Emily. You’re a good man to bear that name and not be an utter prick, he had thought as he spoke.
“I try to be, sir,” Quint had said, doing his best to look Jason in the eyes.
Jason had snorted. “Drop the sir, please. I’m guessing you’re here because Emily thinks it’s the right thing to do?”
Quint had looked very relieved at that, as he took a sip of the bourbon Jason had poured for him. “Yes, s—…”
“Just call me Jason,” he had said.
“Alright,” Quint had said. “Yes.”
“So you really want to take her off my hands?” Jason had said, and Quint had looked rather shocked.
Right then, he thought now as he half-listened to a nearly incomprehensible conversation about bridesmaids’ dresses, Jason had experienced a first inkling of the feeling that his stepdaughter’s hitherto-unshakable faith in her ability to get her own way could have been handled better. He didn’t know Quint very well, yet, but he seemed an amiable enough young man whose extensive sailing experience served him in good stead, as far as projecting a manly air went. But Jason’s worry that Emily would steamroll him at every marital turn, until the marriage fell apart, had received no consolation here today at the wedding planner’s.
But, again, wedding planning existed in a lofty feminine realm into which grooms and stepfathers were called only as accessories, in a sense similar to the one used when speaking of fashion accessories: purses and scarves. Jason felt he had done sterling work simply in saying he would lay out… well, he didn’t like to think how much it would take to ‘persuade’ the current reservation holders to make way for the June society bride.
Neither he nor Quint should try to get in Priscilla’s and Emily’s way here, it seemed perfectly obvious. He had felt obligated to speak up when the two women had started nearly to bully the charming Maria, who clearly knew what she was doing and just as clearly only wanted to help Emily have the wedding of her dreams.
Watching Maria a little surreptitiously now, though, he wondered how many times he would feel the need to come to her defense, and came to the preliminary conclusion that the number might be greater than it would have been had her dark eyes not sparkled quite as vivaciously.
“I thought you’d be happy for me!” Emily said angrily to Georgia, that night at dinner. “Priscilla’s shower’s going to be so elegant!”
“But I told you,” Georgia protested. “I told you that Dave got us tickets for the Red Sox that night. I said…”
Jason decided he should just go ahead and start eating the swordfish dinner he had prepared for the special night at home with his stepdaughters that all three of them had seemed so excited for. They had planned to watch their old favorite movies and to talk about old times and especially about Anne and how proud she would be. Even the swordfish, Anne’s favorite food, was symbolic. And now this.
“This was the only time Priscilla could do it!” Emily said. “Who cares about the stupid Red Sox? Dave can take a friend if he wants!”
“Em,” Georgia cried. “I told you! This was really special. He’s so excited, and he got these amazing seats, and…”
“I’m getting married,” Emily cried. “Do you just not care about that? You’re the maid of honor. You have to be at the shower, and that’s that.”
“Em,” Georgia said again and burst into tears.
Emily looked at Jason. “Jason, tell her, please.”
But Jason had had enough. He put down his fork. “Emily, you’re not being fair. I’m sure Priscilla—”
She interrupted him, to his complete astonishment.
“She can’t. I keep saying that. This is the only—” Her voice had taken on the same unpleasant tone she had adopted at the wedding planner’s, somehow both domineering and petulant.
Jason barely managed to keep his anger in check. At that moment he didn’t see how he could possibly get through the next few months. He hadn’t really meant it when he had asked Quint to take Emily off his hands. He loved his stepdaughters both for their own sakes—nearly impossible to see in Emily at the moment—and for Anne’s sake. But the escalating conflict between them had to find some cessation or none of them would be on speaking terms after Emily departed for her honeymoon on Bermuda.
He was about to intervene with more sharpness than he had used in years, and actually threaten a consequence like refusing to pay for one of the many extravagances discussed that afternoon with Maria Sali, when Georgia took matters into her own hands in a way that made things so much worse that Jason knew he had to act even more forcefully than he had planned.
“Em, with all due respect, you are turning into a fucking—”
“Georgia!” Emily said, and she too burst into tears.
“A fucking bitch!” Georgia screamed, clearly not willing to let anything stop her from delivering her opinion of the bride’s behavior.
Anne Easton had hated coarse language—outside the bedroom, anyway—more than she hated almost anything else under heaven. After returning from her liaison with the girls’ father in California, she said, she had had enough four-letter words for a lifetime. Practically the only thing that had earned Emily and Georgia actual punishment, growing up, was bad language, though the punishment comprised being sent to their rooms and having their phones taken away for a few hours.
“Georgia!” Emily said again. “I’m… I’m the…”
“Right,” Georgia managed, in something between a sob and a scream. “You’re the fucking bride.”
Jason almost intervened then, but he really had very little idea of how to do so, without going further than he really wanted to go. Unfortunately, it seemed drastic measures would be warranted, though, as neither sister backed down.
“Yes!” Emily shouted. “I am the bride. And you aren’t, you fucking immature, selfish…”
Georgia stood up and in one fluid motion reached across the table and slapped Emily in the face. The look of shock on Emily’s face, as the red marks of her sister’s fingers appeared vividly and almost instantly, would have done credit to an actress of the golden age of Hollywood film: her wide eyes and wide mouth seemed to tell a tale of domestic horror, with a terrible revenge to come.
For better or worse, Jason decided right then that something more decisive was necessary, and that whatever spiral of anger might come from the slap must be interrupted here and now. “Georgia Easton,” he said, as calmly as he could, “you just earned yourself a spanking.”
“A what?” The color seemed to drain out of her face, and then return in a hot rush of pink.
“A what?” Emily echoed, her eyes wide and her own cheeks red.
Well, at least Jason had managed to stop what had seemed the onrushing train wreck between the girls, and to focus their anger and horror on him instead of each other.
“You heard me,” Jason said, able to keep his temper under control now a little better, since his announcement had clearly at least quieted the girls down. “Georgia, go up to your room and pull your jeans down to the middle of your thighs, then bend over your bed. I’ll be up to spank you in a few moments.”
Georgia’s mouth hung open, and she clearly couldn’t find her voice to save her life—or her backside.
“Jason, what the—” Emily hissed, then stopped herself. “What are you talking about?”
“Emily, you’re a hair’s breadth from a spanking of your own,” Jason said quietly.
“B-but…” Georgia managed to stammer at that point.
“But you never got spanked when you were little,” Jason helped her, by continuing her thought. “But I never punished you at all.”
Georgia’s mouth closed, her cheeks still flaming, and she nodded.
Emily clearly didn’t like even the direction of Georgia’s questions, though. “What does that matter?” she asked angrily. “What matters is that… is that we’re eighteen, and…”
She stopped, and Jason saw in her expression the intelligence and even the sense of responsibility that he loved in her.
He finished her thought, too. “You’re eighteen, but you’re also dependent on me until you’re twenty-five, as specified in your trust fund. Your mother was a very wise woman.”
“How can you say that?” Emily exclaimed. “Mom never spanked us!”
“Maybe she should have,” Jason said quietly. “In any case, what just happened here is something both of you should be ashamed of. We’re entering a time when all our emotions are going to be running very high—yours highest of all, maybe, Emily, but clearly Georgia’s, too. You can curse me all you want to your friends and even your therapist, but I’m going to present you right now with a formal choice. If you girls want my financial support—and this includes the wedding, Emily—you are going to agree tonight to accept the consequences of your behavior in the way I think best for you. The old-fashioned way.