Runaway Groom

By: Lauren Layne

There are a lot of ways to find out that your best friend’s a total dick.

My way’s landed me in a makeup chair, preparing to have twenty-five women paraded in front of me on national television.

Sounds great, right?

Oh, did I mention that I’m supposed to marry one of them?

“Tell me you found a way out of it,” I growl into the phone.

Diana taps her finger against the back of my hand, our shorthand developed over the years for Switch your phone to the other ear.

Without missing a beat, I move the phone to my right ear, and Diana begins dabbing some beige goop beneath my left eye.

She makes a tsking noise that I know means she’s irritated by darker-than-usual under-eye circles. She’ll just have to deal. She’d have bags under her eyes too if her life was about to turn into a damned circus.

“I’ve been over it a thousand times,” my agent says over the phone. “The contract’s ironclad.”

I lift a hand to rub my forehead, but Diana bats it away so I don’t ruin her handiwork. I settle for clenching my fist and wishing I were somewhere else—somewhere other than an uncomfortable chair in CBC’s Los Angeles studio, preparing to become the star of a new reality TV show’s debut season.

It’s a dubious honor, to say the least. I’m no stranger to being on camera, but this is different. This isn’t stepping into the shoes of a fictional character; this is me as myself.

Or the version of myself everyone wants to see.

Here’s the shit I got myself into: I lost a bet. Three months ago I was in Vegas with my “best friend,” and yes, I’m air-quoting that shit. I was having a hell of a run at the tables—couldn’t lose.

Things were going great until Wes Carver, the Pitt to my Clooney, whatever, decided that a shit-ton of money didn’t make for an interesting enough wager. And because I’ve never been good at turning down a challenge, I agreed.

Wes put his Tesla on the line. My idea. Me? I’d gambled with my damned dignity—if I lost, I’d agree to sign the contract for Jilted. His idea.

I fucking lost.

And don’t tell me not to be a diva, because I haven’t even told you what Jilted is. Think The Bachelor, but so much worse, at least for me.

I’m playing the part of not just any old bachelor but the Runaway Groom—someone with a reputation for leaving women at the altar.

Yes, technically I qualify. But I have my reasons, none of which I look forward to having to explain on national television.

That’s not even the worst part of the show. In The Bachelor, the poor guy has until the end of the show to decide if he’s going to propose to one of the women he met. But Jilted doesn’t end in a maybe proposal.

It ends in a maybe wedding.

Yes, you read that right. Four weeks from now, I’m expected to slip a ring on some woman’s finger. But not an engagement ring. A wedding ring.

Just kill me.

“Told you not to sign it,” Dan says. I can hear him smacking his ever-present gum.

My fist clenches tighter, because he’s right and it’s annoying. I lost that fucking bet, but instead of letting common sense take over, my pride kicked in hard.

Wes, gloating, had expected me to back out. Don’t worry about it, Barrett. Commitment’s not your thing, it’s cool.

It’s not cool. And it pisses me off that the guy who I thought knew me as well as anyone doesn’t get it. Playing the part of the charming but worthless playboy for the public is one thing. Having the people in my real life believe it—well, that sucks.

“Think of it like a free vacation with a bunch of hot girls,” my agent says, his words punctuated with the sound of a car horn. Probably his.

I bite my tongue before I say I don’t need a free vacation—nor am I wanting for female company when I’m in the mood.

A woman with ink-black hair who’s wearing black stilettos and a black dress marches toward me, iPad in hand. “Gage, we’re ready for you.”

Shit. She’s one of the producers of the show and I’ve already forgotten her name.

“Raven,” she says with a small smile, reading my blank expression.

Raven. Right. I wonder if the all-black attire is a deliberate nod to the name, or a side effect of being from New York.

“I need another minute,” Diana says, opening a compact and coming at me with a brush.

I gently grab her wrist. “What the hell is that?”


“No. You know the deal. Bare minimum of makeup.”

She gives an impatient huff. “And usually that’s fine, with your freaking Greek-god skin. Today, though, you look like hell.”

Raven’s gaze rakes over me in an impartial inspection, apparently not impressed that I was voted Sexiest Man Alive last year. And the year before that.

“He’s good enough,” Raven says. “I need him for sound check.”

Diana nods, but not before she sneaks in a quick swipe of powder over my cheekbones.

Raven crooks a finger at me and saunters away, clearly expecting me to follow.

I jerk out the bib-like thing that prevents the makeup from getting on my white dress shirt. “I gotta go,” I say to Dan.

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