Home > Faux Paws (The Dogmothers #6)

Faux Paws (The Dogmothers #6)
Author: Roxanne St. Claire

 


Chapter One

 

 

“Ayla Hollis, are you ready for your entire life to change?”

She was ready for that dagger-sharp bobby pin to not stab her head. “Loosen my veil, Trina,” Ayla whispered to her sister. “I already have a headache.”

“Sorry, hon. That thing isn’t moving out of your bee’s nest for love or money.” Trina added a playful elbow jab. “Both of which we are gathered here to celebrate.”

Ayla couldn’t argue with that hard truth.

“All right, let’s get you married.” Trina guided them both out of the dressing room toward the back of the church where the other five bridesmaids were lined up and ready for the long walk down the aisle of All Saints Episcopal Cathedral. The women all looked straight ahead, game faces on, ready for the walk they’d rehearsed the night before.

All but Jilly. She kept fidgeting and glancing around, and really? Did she pull her phone out of her pocket? Now?

The first few notes of the prelude song rose from behind the closed sanctuary doors, building anticipation among three hundred of Charlotte, North Carolina’s most prominent residents.

But no Nana Jo.

Ayla turned to her sister. “You have the ring?”

“I have the ring.” She patted the fold of her dress. “Wasn’t it smart to have pockets?”

“Jilly thinks so. You’re sure you have it?”

Trina rolled her eyes. “Come on, Ayla. You’ve got costume jewelry worth more than that ring.”

“Not to me.” Of course, Trina would scoff at the simple diamond that their grandmother wore until the day she died. Trina didn’t understand that the ring represented true and lasting love. Neither did EJ, who’d insisted on giving Ayla an engagement ring the size of the Rock of Gibraltar. But he’d agreed that for their wedding, he’d marry her with Nana Jo’s ring. It was only symbolic to him, but it meant everything to her.

“Okay, I got it.” Trina pulled out the ring as proof, then stuffed it back in her pocket. “Let’s roll, the natives are getting restless.”

Tamping down the nerves ricocheting through her, Ayla tried to imagine the crowd out there ready to stand and watch her make the walk. At least Miz Marie was there. That seventysomething widowed dog rescuer, whom Ayla had befriended at the Westside Shelter when they volunteered together, was the closest thing Ayla had to a grandmother. And Marie Boswell might also be the only person in the church who genuinely cared about Ayla. The only one not impressed or terrified by her father’s money.

Oh, and EJ. Her soon-to-be husband. He cared…right? Right?

The stab in her heart was almost as sharp as the one in her head.

“Come on, Ayla. Mother’s already taken her seat. Don’t make her endure too much time one row away from Dad’s latest arm candy.” Trina looked skyward with disgust. “I still can’t believe that little skank wore off-white to a wedding. I mean, who does that? Can we just discuss the subtext there?”

Ayla closed her eyes, not wanting to think about her divorced parents’ endless drama right now, or what Dad’s girl du jour wore today.

As if on cue, a door on the opposite side of the bride’s dressing room opened, and her father walked out, his tuxedo stretched across a broad chest. He smiled, revealing perfect white teeth and the timeless features of a chiseled fifty-eight-year-old business mogul, the epitome of success, a man who’d started and sold Paxton Hollis Pharmaceuticals for a rumored hundred million.

Phillip Hollis wore a look of smug satisfaction on his face. No surprise there. After years of dropping hints—also known as manipulation through withdrawal of affection or finances—his little princess was about to marry Eugene John Paxton the Third.

The marriage fulfilled a dream of their fathers, partners on numerous investments, who saw this union as another great Hollis-Paxton merger that would yield endless dividends. And it overjoyed their mothers, who gave birth to EJ and Ayla in the same hospital twenty-nine years ago and claimed this next generation were “fated mates.”

EJ had loved that idea for the many years he’d pursued Ayla when they were growing up, but she hadn’t been interested in the world-beater who would follow in his father’s footsteps. Then, after Nana Jo died, EJ did a full-court press, and her heart softened.

Was she madly in love with the man? Define madly. She knew the marriage made everyone happy, and that was always motivation enough for Ayla.

Suddenly, the long, white-tipped nails of her friend Jillian Sutton-Malley dug into Ayla’s arm.

“Get back in line, Jilly,” Trina insisted in her bossiest voice, and she had many.

But Jilly shook her head. “I have to talk to Ayla.”

“Now?” Trina choked.

“I have to!” Jilly whispered breathlessly, dragging Ayla a few steps away from the rest of the wedding party.

“Something important on Instagram?” Ayla joked. “Don’t think I didn’t see you on your phone.”

But Jilly didn’t smile. She dug her nails deeper into Ayla’s arm as blood drained from her face. “I have to tell you. I’ll die if I don’t.”

For a moment, Ayla saw the entire exchange in slow motion, and her pulse thumped like she was underwater.

“I slept with him,” Jilly hissed.

“What?” Ayla breathed the word as confusion set in.

“With EJ. We had sex. A lot. Recently. Like, last night after the rehearsal dinner.”

Ayla stared at her friend, a million thoughts at war in her head. Questions and demands and denials and a sudden urge to claw her eyes out. Right after she strangled EJ.

One thought rose to the surface, clear and loud.

I knew it.

Because her fiancé was cut from the same cloth as her father and the whole lot of entitled, spoiled, self-serving people she’d grown up around.

They cheated like they breathed, because getting what you want when you want it was a way of life to this subset of society. Along with judging those who had less while pretending to want to help them, and working to impress those who had more but really wanting to be them. It was why Nana Jo despised them all. It’s why Nana Jo…never liked EJ.

Deep in her soul, Ayla knew Nana Jo would have been opposed to this union. She could still hear her voice…

Ayla Jo, it’s fine to please people, but don’t compromise on love, sweetheart.

But wasn’t that what she was doing right now?

“Did you hear me, Ayla?” Jilly’s blue eyes widened with fear and guilt. “I feel so bad. You have to know before you marry him.”

Ayla already did know. Maybe not about Jilly, but she knew…something was missing with EJ. Trust. Respect. Love. EJ didn’t love Ayla—he loved the idea of Ayla. He didn’t even know her deepest, most essential secret.

But she’d let herself be swept along into the wedding of the year with a month-long European honeymoon and hopes for a happily ever after with a man she liked—or had until five seconds ago—but, really, truly, deep inside, did not love. Or trust.

If only she could read people’s minds the way she could read animals’. If only EJ had been a dog instead of a snake.

“Ayla?” Her father’s booming voice echoed in her other ear. “Are you ready?”

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