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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
304 pages
May 2005
WestBow Press

With This Ring, I'm Confused

by Kristin Billerbeck

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


Chapter One

I’ve imagined my wedding dress since I was a little girl. It’s an elegant shantung sheath with cap sleeves, a sweetheart neckline, and tiny seed pearls sewn on the cinched bodice . . . Seed pearls, hah! Now that I’m standing in the bridal boutique, something has snapped. Girlfriend, I want satin, yards and yards of it! I want sequins and crystals and a bum bow the size of Brazil, leg-o’-mutton sleeves, and a train that practically explodes onto the scene. I want something that screams, I’m the bride! lost in a snow flurry of white. Bring on winter, baby! Ashley Stockingdale is getting married!

Okay, really I just want to tick off my future sister-in-law. Emily Novak, jobless in Atlanta, is here in Silicon Valley to make sure the wedding day runs smoothly. Granted, she has no experience in this field, but that doesn’t seem to stop her at any junction. She is the expert in her own mind, and apparently, that should be good enough credentials for all of us. That, and the copy of the Wedding Planner by Martha Stewart is supposed to impress me. Three days I’ve been searching for the perfect Tussy Mussy. Until three days ago, I didn’t even know what this silver piece of hardware was, but it is apparently quite important to “brides in the know” such as my Victorian ancestors and now me. It’s a bouquet holder. As in, you hold it in your hands, and no one sees the design anyway. The first rule of good fashion is it should definitely be noticed. Am I right?

I hear Emily clap her hands, and I feel myself cringe at her entrance. “No, no, no. Who brought this gown to you? It’s completely wrong. Hideous!” She stretches the word to its full three syllables with more than a hint of Southern drawl.

I swivel around. “It has a butt bow.”

She sighs extensively. I seem to make her sigh a lot. “Ashley,” she says, as though someone has expired. “My brothah has a reputation in Atlanta. His bride will be splashed across every society page in Georgia. This simply will not do.”

“But I like it. It says, Baby got back. You know what I’m saying?”

“I have no idea what you’re sayin’. A Novak bride should be above reproach, and that means, at the very least, elegant style. Classic. Think Jacqueline Kennedy, Princess Diana, Jennifer Aniston.”

“Jennifer Aniston?” I ask, hearing that old Sesame Street song about how one of these things just doesn’t belong.

“The point is, Ashley, you want Keh-vin to gasp at the sight of you, to draw in his breath and never forget the moment. That dress is truly forgettable, but don’t worry. I’ve got everything taken care of.”

I beg your pardon. This dress is anything but forgettable. Apparently my good hair days have not spoken for me to Emily. I have impeccable taste in clothing. I could easily be a stylist instead of a patent attorney, but Emily is so fun to mess with that I can’t help myself. I want to try on the pink gowns, the blue ones, maybe even the golden, shimmery yellow one. I want Emily to imagine me as a satin Easter egg floating down the aisle, stealing her brother from good taste forever. Oh sure, you’re thinking I’m immature, but I dare you to waste three days on a bouquet holder and tell me you’d feel any differently. I’ve had patent processes move quicker than this.

She clings to that Martha Stewart ringed book like it will unlock all the secrets of humanity. She has it tucked inside a Coach leather folder, trying to make me think she comes up with all this brilliance herself, but the truth is she’s a paint-by-number wedding planner and Martha holds the color code.

The fact is, I want Brea. My best friend should be here, but I know getting a babysitter for two kids under two is virtually impossible. Especially in the Silicon Valley, where kids are considered dirt with noise. I know Brea would be enjoying my tacky fashion show with vigor and bringing in more for me to try on while we giggled and added sparkle-encrusted tiaras. But Brea is busy, lost in a sea of diapers and spit-up from her babies, and Emily is shockingly free. Go figure. Besides, Kevin is anxious for me to get to know his sister. She doesn’t have many friends back home, and gee, isn’t that a surprise?

“Ashley! Sorry I’m late.” I hear Brea’s voice, and I want to run to her and kiss her feet. She takes one gander at my gown, and I see her smile ever so slightly. “That is gorgeous! But I think it needs a few more bows on the sleeves. It doesn’t really announce you enough. Let me go look on the racks.”

“Stop! I’ll go look,” Emily shouts and leaves in a huff.

Brea and I fall into a wave of giggles. “Check out my bow.” I turn and let her see that not only is my train covered in satin ribbon bows, but also that one special, prominent bow is probably a foot in diameter. “Am I hot or what? Name a man who could resist me.” I shake my bonbon with vigor.

“You have to try on one of the pink satins. Did you see that fuchsia number on the clearance rack?”

Do we think alike or what?

“Poor Emily, she’s endured enough. I think it’s time we got down to business. Besides, I’m annoying Hannah the shop girl. I just had to have my protest moment. I’m fine now. What was I thinking to have my future sister-in-law as my wedding coordinator? Who am I, Jessica Simpson, that I need a coordinator anyway?”

Hannah, the shop’s manager, is from my church and is a complete doll, but even she has her breaking point. I almost want to buy this gown to put it out of its misery, like the Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

“The shop is never going to sell that number anyway, even on the clearance rack. You’re doing it a favor to try it on.” Brea crinkles her nose at my gown. “They probably got it free from an up-and-going designer. Does Emily know you already ordered the Vera Wang and that we’re actually here for bridesmaid gowns?”

Tsk. “Sure, bring on the guilt. I was having a perfectly fine day until you had to remind me to grow up. Age is relative, you know.”

“You’re terrible, and you have to live with this woman forever. You’re marrying into her family. The wedding is the least of your issues. You should be thinking about your first wrinkle--or egad, stretch marks, and how they’ll fight to hand you the plastic surgery cards. Gosh, they’re all like walking ad campaigns for Extreme Makeovers.”

“Emily will be back in Atlanta before the weekend’s up!” I do a little jig. “I’m going to be good now. I was just entertaining myself until you got here.” I slink out of the gown. The black-velvet Elvis painting of wedding wear, if you will.

Kevin, my fiancé, is from big money in the South. His father is a prominent surgeon and attends the proper functions that a good family should. This is why Kevin is in California, hoping to avoid this lifestyle and focus on his first love: medicine. I’m beginning to think the distance to Atlanta is not nearly as wide as I once thought. Perhaps there’s a surgical opening in South America.

Emily enters the oversize dressing room with a multitude of boring gowns that say, I’m elegant and don’t have a mind of my own, nor a speck of vision. Now, I’m a realist, and I’ve seen my mother’s wedding photos. If they taught me anything, it was this: always go classic, never trendsetting. Otherwise, you risk looking like Carol Brady to the next generation.

“Emily,” I say softly. “I’ve actually already ordered a Vera Wang gown. I just wanted to make sure it was the right one today.” I yank my suit skirt back on.

“We really should have picked the gown first. And in fact, I did pick the gown--to go with the theme. I was waitin’ to show you the style as the grand finale.”

“I’m missing something,” I say. “I’m the bride, and you picked the dress?”

“I had to. To pull off the theme.”

“Theme?” I croak. I’m afraid to ask. I’m having prom flashbacks.

“Your name is Ashley Wilkes Stockingdale. Your dog is Rhett. Your husband is from Atlanta, the home of the great Margaret Mitchell. Your theme has to be Gone with the Wind.”

Um, no, actually it doesn’t. “You know, Scarlett and Rhett didn’t exactly part on the best of terms. I’m thinking maybe that’s not where I want to go with a wedding theme.” I’m all smiles. I could be head cheerleader at the moment. “Right?”

“Ashley and Rhett are forevah in love, as you and my brothah will be. I’d love to see you walk through raised swords of Confederate soldiers.”

“But I’m a Yankee,” I say with the utmost seriousness. I’m a “Yankee”? I’m a patent attorney living in Silicon Valley in the new millennium. Something about this conversation is making me forget that reality. “I mean, I’m a native Californian. Beach, Hollywood, movie stars.” Granted, I live nowhere near these things, but I’m reaching here.

“We won’t hold that against you, that you’re a Yankee. The Confederate uniforms won’t clash with Keh-vin’s tuxedo, like a Union soldier’s would, aftah all.”

Help! I look to Brea. My gaze tells her, I think she’s a crazed lunatic. Help me!

“I think what Ashley is trying to say is that this is not the wedding she imagines for herself,” Brea says. “You understand how a bride dreams of her day, and I’ve never actually heard of a wedding planner selecting the gown.”

“Well, my brothah is the groom. He has some say too.” Emily only sounds very Southern when she’s getting angry. Look out for the accent.

“Kevin never said anything to me about soldiers at the wedding.” I can’t imagine my Dr. Kevin Novak, pediatric surgeon at Stanford’s Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital, hoping for a Confederate wedding, but then, maybe we haven’t known each other long enough.

“Ashley, a weddin’ is about mergin’ two families together.” Emily threads her fingers. “Our family is Southern and proud of its heritage. Just because your family is without history does not mean we should forget our roots. Wouldn’t you agree?”

My fists fly to my hips. “Without heritage? I’ll have you know, we’ve had the chicken dance at every one of our weddings. And we start the music with Kool and the Gang’s ‘Celebration,’ like every good American wedding should. I suppose you think the ‘Macarena’ is tacky?”

I feel Brea’s hand on my back. “Ladies, this is serving no good purpose. Let’s start the selection of the bridesmaid gowns, shall we? We’ll just have to work the theme around Ashley’s dress, Emily.”

Emily shakes her head. “The dress is the theme. I’ve found a seamstress for the bridesmaid gowns, a woman who made the reproductions for the Road to Tara Museum. We’ll have the traditional tiered skirts, with ruffles and cinched waists.”

Brea comes undone. “Listen, I’m not wearing ruffles. I’ve just had a baby, and I’ve got enough ruffles of my own. In fact, I’m wearing a shaper to get rid of those ruffles, so I’m certainly not adding any more!”

“Let’s not get excited,” I say before Brea goes postal. “Maybe it’s best that we don’t decide this today. Tensions are high, and there’s still plenty of time to work around a theme. A different theme,” I say.

Now I’ve got nothing against the South. Gone with the Wind is one of my favorite movies, despite my ridiculous moniker, but I’m just not sure I’m ready to recreate the moment at my wedding. In California. With my high-tech friends.

I munch my lip, thinking. “I’m not even sure most of the engineers here have heard of the film. Now if I was going to have a Lord of the Rings wedding, I’d be stylin’!” My cell phone rings. “Excuse me,” I say, lifting a finger. “Ashley Stockingdale.”

“Ash? It’s Kevin. How goes the wedding plans?”

“Fine,” I offer cheerily, showing teeth just to make it real. They say if you act the part, you believe it.

“Is that my brothah? Let me speak to him.” Emily rips the phone out of my hands. “Keh-vin, I came out here to help you, but I really must have creative freedom to plan the weddin’. This will be the social event of the year in Georgia--even though it’s in California,” she adds with distaste. “I thought we agreed on a Southern theme so that Mothah would be at ease, and your bride is fightin’ me at every step.” She pauses, tapping her foot and staring me down. “She didn’t even want to select a Tussy Mussy.”

I’ve spent my entire thirty-two years wanting to be married. And suddenly, I want to run to the security of my singles group. I want to watch science-fiction movies with engineers and my dog. I want to sketch out patents on my laptop and remind myself that I’m good at something. As I listen to Emily rant about me to my fiancé, the first sting of tears hits. A dream wedding is a myth. A dream wedding would not have Scarlett O’Hara on steroids in it, and it would not include a family that thought purchasing my wedding gown was acceptable. Boundaries, people!

“I have to get something,” I hear my voice say, and I run out of the shop, down the street--without my cell phone, as Emily is still yelling into it. I’ve got my coffee card, and that’s all that matters at the moment. Jaunting into the coffeehouse, I hand over my card with desperation. “Double shot, on ice.”

“Bad day?” Nick, my barista, asks.

“The worst.” He pulls the shots, and my mouth starts watering. “I’m beginning to think my brother had the right idea getting married in Vegas. You know, you should just announce to people you don’t want to go through the trouble. Vegas it is.”

Nick hands me the espresso, which is as thick as sludge. I down it straight.

“Whew, I feel better. Let me have another.” I bang the plastic cup on the counter.

Nick’s eyes widen. “I don’t think so, Ashley. You’re hyper enough without caffeine. I’m not going to be responsible for you going over your limit. Weren’t you arrested once in that state?”

I slam the cup down on the counter again. “I was arrested for lack of caffeine. I had jet lag from Taiwan and no espresso, unless you consider bubble tea strong enough. I don’t. And the cop grabbed my Prada!”

He just stares at me, blinking.

“There’s a Starbucks on the corner,” I threaten.

“I’m cutting you off, Ashley. And I don’t think you’d make good on your threat for corporate coffee. I know you too well.”

Ack. Foiled again.

Brea walks into the coffee shop, tossing her purse the size of a small African nation over her shoulder. She has my cell phone in her hand. “You’ve got Kevin worried. Why don’t you call him?”

“I’m getting married in Vegas. Southern beauty queens are banned from Vegas, aren’t they?”

“Vegas? Now you’ve got me worried. Did you forget that Seth showed up in Vegas? There are no good memories in that cesspool for you. Call Kevin now.”

I’ve abandoned my future sister-in-law in a bridal boutique. “Brea, maybe I shouldn’t be getting married after all. Kevin’s family has issues. Major issues, and I’ve got enough of my own. Think of my kids’ gene pool! Do you know, his sister asked me to take the IQ test again for his mother? I mean, what if I didn’t pass? What if our kids are stupid, and they blame me? I mean, would it really matter if they were stupid? I’d dress them cute.”

“It’s impossible that they could be more stupid than asking someone to take an IQ test.”

“All right, you’ve got a point, but that doesn’t change this.” I look down at my cell phone. “I don’t know how I can share any of this with Kevin. What if he thinks I should have the right Tussy Mussy?”

“Then isn’t it better to know? Kevin works with sick children every day of his life, Ashley. He doesn’t care about a bouquet holder any more than you do. You’re getting delusional with stress.”

Deep down, I know this is true, but Kevin has a hard enough time with his family. I don’t want to make things worse. I look back to Brea. “I’ve got to get back to work. Purvi is going to wonder what’s going on with me. She’s already bailed me out more than once.”

Purvi is my fabulous boss, originally from India. She got fired from Selectech for being a decent mother, and they offered me her job, but I turned it down (along with the immediate ticket to Taiwan). I got a new position at Gainnet as General Counsel. However, I had no idea what I was doing, so they hired Purvi as Executive General Counsel (at my request) and things are back to normal. I’m a grunt patent attorney again. I make enough to live and dress well. What more do I need?

Brea speaks, reminding me I’m not yet in the peaceful place of my familiar chaos: work. “You’ve got to go back to the boutique, Ashley. Emily is paying for the gloves now, and she’s waiting for you. I made an excuse for your rude behavior, but I’ve got to get home to the boys soon.”

I draw in a deep breath and feel my fear. “I don’t want to do this.”

“Get used to it. Marriage is all about compromise. That’s why you have to plan a wedding together first,” Brea says. “If you make it through that, you’ll be ready for what’s to come.”

“So you’re willing to wear ruffles and a hoopskirt?” I ask with my arms crossed.

“Not on your life. Compromise, Ashley, but don’t put me in a tacky bridesmaid gown or I’ll have to hurt you, and I won’t lend you Miles as ring bearer.” She winks. “And please don’t have the dog; that’s just weird.”

Turn the other cheek. That’s what being a Christian is all about, but I have to admit, I’d like Emily to get an eyeful of a big satin bow when I do. I slam my hand on the counter and throw my shoulders back. I’ve handled my brother for years; an unemployed Southern belle from Atlanta has nothing on me. Bring it on!

I look down at Kevin’s grandmother’s ring, and I’m reminded that he’s worth an exhaustive search for the perfect Tussy Mussy. In it, I’ll place heather to remind me that wishes do come true and red tulips for my everlasting love for Kevin, the man who made me see that pining for someone who doesn’t love you isn’t really love at all. Love is steadfast and consistent, not filled with courtroomlike drama.

“Ashley?” My future sister-in-law comes into the coffee shop holding a pink bag, which I can only assume is filled with silk gloves.

“I’m sorry, Emily. I had an urge for caffeine.” And room to breathe.

“Your boss called the bridal shop after you left. Apparently she couldn’t get through to you on your cell.” Emily looks at my cell in Brea’s hand.

“Did she give you a message?” I ask anxiously.

“That unless you’re appearin’ on the cover of Bride this month to get back to work.” Emily giggles and looks upward in deep thought. “Oh, and Microsoft . . . hmm . . . wait a minute, I’ll remember . . . Microsoft just filed for a patent on your process.”

I drop my head in my hands.

Mental note: Mensa membership has no bearing in reality.

“I gotta go!” I leap from the shop and rush back to the office. Lord forbid I fail at everything today.