Authors: Melanie Shawn
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary
Jason beamed, “I will, Colonel.”
As Grandpa J made his way to his seat, Pam, Katie’s mom, surprised everyone. Seemingly overcome with love, she quickly stood, hugging both Katie and Jason before taking her seat next to her sister, Aunt Wendy. Chelle could see pleased smiles all around the congregation at this show of emotion by Katie's mother. The whole time Katie had been growing up, although Pam had always been a very good Mom and there was no question in anyone's mind about how much she loved Katie and how much she would sacrifice for her, Pam had never been very physically demonstrative or affectionate about that love.
Well, I guess weddings do tend to bring out the mushy side of people, Chelle thought as she turned to face the pastor.
The ceremony began and Chelle did her level best to focus on the pastor and what he was saying, but if she was honest with herself, it was the conversation with David that kept running through her mind as she tried to enjoy the beautiful ceremony. Her brain kept torturing her with the list of things that she should have said, the many questions that she should have asked. She had just been so blindsided by what David had revealed, that it was like her brain had been short-circuited.
Katie and Jason stepped up to the alter and the pastor announced that they were going to exchange vows that they had written themselves. Chelle prepared herself for the onslaught of emotion she was sure to have when they spoke. Of all the times during the day today that she needed to guard against having a breakdown, surely this – during the freaking VOWS, for crying out loud! - was the most important. And yet, because of the inherent emotion that the moment was going to bring, it could also prove to be the hardest. She steeled herself.
Jason brushed a soft curl back from Katie's face and she smiled up at him beaming with love.
He took a deep breath and said, “Katie. My angel. I think that from the first moment I laid eyes on you, when we were putting our backpacks in our cubbies on the first day of Kindergarten, I knew that this day was in the cards for us. That it was coming, as surely as a sunrise after a dark night, no matter how far away that light might seem at some points, when you're sitting in the darkness. I never lost faith in you...in us. I know we took a winding road to get here, but this is where we belong. With each other. In each other's arms, and in each other's hearts. My beautiful girl, now that I have you, trust me on one thing – I will never let you go. You are my angel, the light of my life, forever.”
Chelle felt tears falling from her eyes, but that was fine. There was nothing suspicious about that, there wasn't a dry eye in the place. Still, she certainly wasn't out of the woods yet. She still had to get through her DFF's speech without falling apart!
Katie took a deep, shaking breath and beamed up at Jason.
“Jason,” she began tremulously, and then squared her shoulders, a determined look coming into her eye. She began again, her voice stronger and more confident, “Jason, you are the strength that I never knew that I had. You call me your angel, but the truth is – you are
guardian angel, and you always have been. Whether I knew that you were doing it or not...whether I even knew that I needed it or not...you were always looking out for me. Love isn't expressed through the things that we do which we expect credit for, or some elaborate show of gratitude in return. Many of the sacrifices you have made for me, I never knew about until fifteen years after the fact. I'm sure there are many more that I
don't know about.
“The love that you have shown me, and continue to show me, regardless of if I deserve it or even know about it, is the purest love I have ever known.
“There are so many things I adore about you, my Jason. But I think that the biggest among them is how you show me, every single day, what it means to be selfless. I love you.”
Good Lord! Leav
e it to Katie, Chelle thought, to come up with a tear-jerking speech just when I'm trying to keep all emotions in check!
Katie and Jason kissed, and soon Chelle was relieved to see that they were making their way down the aisle. YES! Her time “on stage,” so to speak, was nearly over. Of course, there was still the whole reception to get through...but at least she wouldn't be standing on a platform in front of all the guests for the entire reception!
Sophie and Bobby followed Katie and Jason, and then Chelle stepped to the center of the aisle and took the arm of Alex Sloan, another of the five Sloan brothers. As he escorted her down the aisle he turned to her and said with a wink, “Damn Chelle, you look good, David’s a lucky man.”
Those four innocent words, meant to be a compliment - ‘David’s a lucky man’ - were the straw that broke the camel's back. They hit her right in the solar plexus and were just about more than she could handle. She thought she might throw up or pass out, she wasn’t sure which – but neither option was all that appealing at the moment!
Alex must have noticed that something was wrong, because once they exited the sanctuary he guided her to a secluded hall that branched off of the foyer, leading to the side of the church. After checking up and down the hall to make sure they were alone, he said, concern in his voice, “You don’t look so good. Are you okay?”
Chelle nodded and tried to smile, although even to her own mind, it seemed like a weak attempt. She realized that her attempts must have actually been every bit as outwardly unconvincing as she suspected that they were when Alex immediately turned to leave, saying in a somewhat urgent tone, “Let me go get David.”
“NO!” Chelle hadn’t meant to raise her voice or to bark out the command so harshly.
Alex froze, then slowly turned back on his heels, looking at her like she had grown another head. He raised his hands in mock surrender, saying, “
Okay, sorry. I won’t go get David.”
Chelle slumped against the wall, defeated and still fighting the last vestiges of hysteria. “David’s been cheating on me with his eighteen year old secretary Kayla. She’s pregnant and he’s marrying her.” The words tumbled out of her faster than water racing down a wild river. They rushed from her mouth and she didn't even realize it was happening until she heard her own voice saying them. She flung her hand over her mouth to try and stop it.
Alex’s emerald green eyes became as big as saucers. “Holy shit!”
Chelle removed her hand from her mouth, realizing the damage had been done. She had already spilled the beans. Time for damage control. “Please don’t say anything, Alex. I don’t want Katie to worry. You know how she is.”
Alex nodded his head in agreement, “I can’t believe you’ve been able to keep it a secret from her, she’s like Sherlock Holmes.”
“Well, I just found out. He told me about ten minutes before I left to come here.”
Alex shook his head. “What an asshole.”
“Yep. My thoughts exactly.” She took a deep breath. Her body felt heavy, as if her limbs were encased in concrete. She thought she must be weighed down by the stark reality of the situation, which had just become shockingly more real, now that she had told someone else. Now there was a witness.
“Damn. I don’t know what to say, Chelle.” Alex genuinely looked pained for her.
“Don’t worry about it, I’m fine.” She smiled as brightly as she could manage, not wanting him to feel sorry for her. If there was anything she hated, it was being the object of pity. “Just please do me a favor and don’t say anything to anyone,
Not waiting for an answer, she stepped out of the hall and back towards the crowd of people. She instantly began to feel a little lighter.
People, that’s what she needed. Crowds of people. No more of this one-on-one conversation nonsense. That was too heavy. It was (obviously!) far too easy to say things that would be more prudent to keep to herself. She just needed to keep herself surrounded by the masses. That should be easy enough to do at the reception, she figured – those things were filled with people, and most of them would probably want to chat with her and Sophie, since they were the only two bridesmaids. They were like “stars for a day.”
She felt Alex beside her as she walked out to the limo that was waiting to take them to the restaurant where the reception was going to be held. He gently squeezed her hand as they all piled into the vehicle, and when she looked up at him, he gave her a half-smile and a little wink. He leaned close to her and whispered. “Screw him. He was never good enough for you anyway.”
The reception passed by in a blur of activity, which Chelle was grateful for. She felt her energy, which was so necessary for keeping up the bright facade, flagging a few times – but Alex was never far from her side when that happened, for which she was grateful.
He gracefully interrupted conversations as they started to stray down an uncomfortable path, and he kept her occupied tearing up the dance floor. She had forgotten how much fun it was to just dance.
Chelle didn't know if he was filling the role of guard dog as a personal favor to her or if he saw the act of preventing her from having a breakdown at Katie and Jason's wedding reception to be part of his duties as co-Best Man...but either way, she was grateful for the
assist. It was so much easier to keep the train of her sanity on the tracks when she didn't have to worry about directing the course that would keep it from derailing!
Everything was going great, Chelle had to admit, until she excused herself from Alex's protective presence to use the restroom. That's when the whole carefully-constructed plan to keep her on an even keel came right off the rails.
David was waiting for her when she stepped out.
“We need to talk, Chelle,” David demanded standing with his arms crossed in a defensive stance.
“No, we don’t. Not here.” She tried to step around him, but he swiftly moved to block her escape route.
“Chelle, we need to get some things worked out, logistically. Kayla wants to move in and we need to know when you'll be out.”
Chelle’s head began spinning. Kayla wanted to move in. Move into
condo. She needed to get away. She couldn’t breathe. She needed air.
“We think five days is more than generous. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, but we expect you to be out by then. Kayla wants to have the locks changed.”
She felt an arm wrap around her waist and heard Alex’s voice, “Come on
Chellie Bellie. They need us out there. They're gonna cut the cake.”
Alex stared directly into David’s eyes, and Chelle sensed that something primal was passing between them. A pissing contest of sorts. After several moments David stepped to the side, allowing her and Alex to pass.
Hmm, she thought, guess Alex won that round...
As she walked past David she heard him say something under his breath but she couldn’t make it out. From the look on his face she was pretty sure she wouldn't have liked what he said, so she ignored it.
“Thank you,” she said to Alex. She wasn’t sure how she would have made it through the day without him.
She turned to give him a grateful hug and heard someone clear their throat meaningfully. She looked up and saw her big brother, Eddie, who worked with Jason and Bobby at Sloan Construction.
He had also been best friends with the Sloans' older brother Riley when they were growing up.
Chelle had been trying to avoid Eddie at the reception because Eddie was irrationally overprotective of her, and she certainly didn’t want him to cause a scene with David if he found out what had been going on. Of course, it
's not like she would be
to tell him about it...but as her little breakdown with Alex in the hall had proved, sometimes things just pop out.
Chelle had been with David off and on since their freshman year in high school, and it had taken Eddie a good two years to warm up to him. Well...he had never really
to him, per se...he tolerated David for Chelle’s sake, but he never really liked him. Needless to say, he had not been overjoyed when she and David had reconnected and then gotten engaged.
He had always maintained that David was a douchebag – damn it all to hell, why hadn’t she
She knew that if Eddie caught wind of David’s transgressions, the resultant scene would not be pretty.
Eddie, God love him, had a tendency to punch first and ask questions later...and as satisfying as it might feel to see David take one in the face right about now, she did
want him to make a scene at Katie’s wedding reception!
Eddie was fairly notorious around Harper's Crossing because had gotten into his fair share of brawls in high school, and had even had several run-ins with the law during his teen years. He and Riley both were known for their quick tempers and wild ways. They were labeled the “bad boys” of Harper’s Crossing.
Eddie had straightened up after he turned eighteen and realized that if he didn't grow up, and fast, he would be throwing the rest of his life away on stupid adolescent antics. Riley, apparently having a similar epiphany, had joined the Marines around the same time. He had left for basic training right after their senior year, and - other than a couple of short weekend trips home to visit his family – he hadn’t been back to Harper’s Crossing since.
But Riley and Eddie had kept in touch over the years. In fact, Eddie had stepped in for Riley as a groomsman the month before, at Bobby and Sophie’s wedding, when Riley had found out at the last minute that his deployment was being extended.
“What’s going on with you two?” Eddie asked now, staring at Alex.
Alex put his hands up in mock surrender, “Nothing man, we’re just in the wedding party together.”
She knew Alex wasn’t really scared of her brother, he was just trying to diffuse the tension. Alex was an ex-Navy Seal, and - although her brother stood at an impressive six-two - Alex was only a hair shorter than him, at six one. Both men were extremely fit and could definitely hold their own.
Chelle suddenly felt little arms wrap around her legs and she looked down to see her beautiful six-year-old niece Emily hugging her tightly.
She bent down and wrapped her arms around her, “Hello, my pretty princess. Are you having fun?”
Emily looked up adoringly and smiled a toothless grin. She had lost her two front teeth the month earlier, “Yes, I told Daddy that I want a wedding just like this when I grow up.”
Eddie groaned as he scooped his daughter up into his arms, “And I told her she has a lot of time to plan it since she’s not even allowed to date until she’s thirty.”
Chelle smiled. Her brother was such an amazing Dad. His ex-wife,
Lacey, had decided when Emily was about three months old that she wasn’t cut out to be a wife or a Mom, leaving him divorced and a single Dad.
He never complained, never acted like it was any kind of a burden, but Chelle knew it must be hard on him.
Emily giggled as she turned and hugged Eddie’s neck, exclaiming happily, “Dance with me, Daddy!”
Eddie’s eyes softened for a moment before turning to Alex and hardening again. “I’m watching you,” he said in his most protective, don’t-mess-with-my-baby-sister tone.
Chelle knew that Alex had a reputation as a ladies' man. That reputation was probably why her brother looked concerned. But Alex had been a perfect gentleman, and had been her saving grace today, and she wasn't about to let her brother make it into something it wasn’t.
“Eddie, Alex has been great today. I needed a friend and he was there for me. That’s all. Don’t act like he did something wrong.” Slipping her arm in Alex’s she started towards the cake table, “We need to go, they're cutting the cake.”
She heard her brother’s voice behind her, “Friend, huh? Yeah, right.”
Whatever, she thought, exasperated. Think what you want, I‘ll deal with it later. Eddie had no idea that Alex was definitely not the Sloan brother he would need to worry about, if he were going to start worrying about any of them. Oh, sure, she had always liked Alex well enough...had thought he was attractive, funny and easy to get along with. But he wasn’t Riley! She sighed inwardly. Oh LORD, she had always had it bad for Riley Sloan.
Of course, most of the time they were growing up, Riley had ignored her or treated her like an annoying little sister. BUT...there were a few nights...a few
nights...that he had stayed up late and talked to her, when her parents had been out and Eddie was passed out drunk or busy ‘entertaining’ the flavor of the week. Those nights had probably been the best of her entire life.
Riley had opened up to her about his childhood. He had talked about his Mom’s battle with depression, which ultimately resulted in her losing her life. His mother, Cheryl, had been out of the picture for several years before tragically overdosing on sleeping pills.
He had talked about wanting to leave Harper’s Crossing, to get away from the small town where everyone had an opinion about his life, his brother’s lives, and his mom's life...and death.
He had also asked her about her plans for the future. He had listened as she told him about how she wanted to go into nursing. No one had ever asked her what she wanted to do with her life...well, except Katie. She hadn’t been ignored by her fa
mily, exactly. Just maybe
. But on those nights, it had felt as if Riley
her, really saw who she was. To this day, she had never felt a connection with anyone like she had experienced with him.
She would still catch herself replaying those nights over and over again in her head. She had even dreamed about them sometimes. She sometimes thought that if Heaven were really
going to be better than anything she had experienced here on earth, it would have to go a pretty good distance to outpace those nights she had spent sitting up and talking with Riley Sloan.
His sandy blonde hair and gorgeous hazel eyes had been the stuff of her teenage fantasies...hell, who was she kidding? Her adult fantasies, too, for that matter. Every man she ever met, when she unconsciously measured their attractiveness, Riley Sloan was the yardstick she measured them against.
She had yet to meet someone that measured up to the standard, let alone exceeded it.
Riley had never known how she felt about him. No one did, not even Katie. But suffice it to say, Eddie definitely didn’t need to
about Alex Sloan swooping in and stealing her heart. Nope. Alex never made her heart race, let alone stop cold. Not the way Riley did.
It did make her start to wonder, though...where was David in that mix? Here she was, ruminating about men that got her heart racing to various degrees...and David didn't even come to mind?
She shook her head. Right now, none of that mattered. She just needed to make it through the cake cutting, incident-free. She needed to plaster on a smile and get through the rest of the reception with NO DRAMA. Then, lastly, she would get Katie into the limo that was taking her and Jason to O’Hare, where they were catching a plane to Bermuda for their well-deserved honeymoon.
THEN, and only then, would she allow herself to fall apart.
The cake cutting went off without a hitch. Jason and Katie kept it classy and didn’t shove the confection in each other’s faces, smearing it everywhere - which Chelle appreciated. She had never understood why couples did that. She had always thought that it was disrespectful, and more than a little tacky.
Not long after the cake cutting, Aunt Wendy ran up to Chelle, headset firmly in place, and said, “The Limo's here, doll. Can you go find Katie?”
Chelle nodded and turned to go do exactly that. As she was walking away, she heard Wendy say into the headset, “MOH retrieving bride...” and Chelle smiled. Probably the first genuine, non-hysterical, smile that had graced her lips the entire day. It was partly because she was amused by Wendy's super-serious-secret-squirrel-wedding-planner routine...but it was also due to her realization that – Woohoo! - she was almost in the clear.
Once Chelle had bundled Katie into that limo and she was on her way to the airport, Chelle could take a moment to breathe and start to figure this whole debacle out.
She moved forward with a fresh sense of determination, heading toward the last place she had seen Katie. She didn’t quite make it that far, however. As she was passing the wide doors that led out to the (closed and off limits) patio, she felt her arm being grabbed and, before she knew it, she was being dragged bodily through the doors and onto the patio. She was alarmed until she turned and saw that her “attacker” was Katie.
“Holy catfish!” Chelle exclaimed, “What are you doing out here on the dusty patio? Do you have any idea what your aunt – or whoever she's talking to on the other end of that headset – will do to me if I deliver you into the limo with a filthy hem?”
Ignoring this tirade, Katie asked solemnly, “Is it true?”
Chelle, ever the optimist, was still holding out hope that Katie hadn’t heard her news and was inquiring about some other gossip-worthy scandal.
“Is what true?” Chelle asked conspiratorially.
Katie’s eyes widened, she shook her head. “Is it true that David cheated on you and got some skank pregnant?”
“Oh, that,” Chelle said nonchalantly, “yeah, that’s true.”
Downplay, that was her only move at this point in the game!
Katie’s voice got squeaky and high, not a good sign. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It’s not that big of a deal. I just didn’t want you worried about it. Now, come on, we gotta get you to the limo!” She tried to gloss over the whole thing and pull Katie back inside.