From the moment the sun rose in the eastern Nebraska sky, the day of Stacy’s wedding was a crazy, emotional flurry of manis, pedis, flowers, chiffon, and hair spray, with little time for anything else. Except nerves.
Before Kylie could catch a breath, she had been whisked from the beauty salon to the church, sequestered inside a Sunday School classroom. The heady aroma of poster paint mixed in a nauseating fashion with the lighter fragrance of the calla lilies in the bridal bouquets.
And there were screaming children everywhere.
“What in the world…” Kylie muttered, trying to comprehend the chaos.
“I couldn’t decide on just one flower girl, so I asked my entire class to help me out.” Stacy beamed in pride at the madness before them. “Even the boys volunteered.”
“You are insane, you know that, right?” Kylie laughed.
“Oh, I know,” Stacy agreed. “It’s a prerequisite of all first-grade teachers.”
Martha rushed into the room, her pincushion attached to her wrist, tape measure dangling from her neck, and Kylie’s maid of honor dress draped across her arm. “Okay, Kylie, hun, come over and try this now. I think I’ve finally got it taken in enough on the sides.”
Stacy lifted the dress from Martha’s arm and held it up. “It’s so tiny.”
“Are you eating at all in California?” Martha asked. “I swear you’re wasting away to nothing.”
“I eat fine,” Kylie insisted yet again, for what felt like the hundredth time in less than twenty-four hours. If one more person shoved food in her direction, instructing her to, ‘Eat, eat,’ she was going to scream.
Nessa arrived soon after Martha, holding Brayden by the hand. All dressed up in a mini tux with tails, his wild blonde hair slicked back into submission, he was a heartbreaker.
“Bray, you look so grown up,” Kylie said, pride welling in her chest.
“You are one handsome cookie, Macho Man.” Aria knelt in front of him to adjust his lapels. “Will you save me a dance tonight?”
Brayden hid his face behind his hands as he nodded, blushing a vivid, rosy red. Aria moved his hands to kiss his cheek, and he whispered, “Ah-ree-ah?”
“Yes, Bray?” she whispered, the tip of her nose kissing his.
He patted her face with both of his little hands, then giggled and ran away.
She brought her hands to her heart, smiling in absolute delight. “Oh, I missed him.”
Tears slipped down Kylie’s cheek and her heart quickened as she watched him run and play with the other children. It was good they came. He needed to be here, if only for a few days. The outpouring of love surrounding him made him stronger, reminded him who he was.
Kylie quickly brushed her tears away before they ruined her makeup. “Okay, let’s see this dress.”
She followed her mother into the adjoining storage closet that temporarily doubled as a dressing room and slipped out of her clothes. Once Martha helped her into the dress, they returned to the mirrors set up in the main room.
“Oh, wow, Ky,” Nessa whispered, stepping up to adjust the back.
As she turned to look at her reflection in the mirror, Kylie was eternally grateful for Aria’s impeccable taste. The dress was stone-colored, luminescent chiffon with a cowl-draped, baby-doll skirt, a deep V-neckline and an empire bodice, accented by a thin coffee-colored ribbon just below her breasts. The coloring made her skin look like fine porcelain and deepened the lowlights in her long hair until they shone of deep mahogany.
“You are unbelievably beautiful, Ky.”
“Oh, Ness.” She turned again, admiring her foreign reflection from another angle. The lay of the fabric flattered Kylie’s body perfectly; minimizing her waist and emphasizing her breasts, creating the illusion they were much fuller than reality. Damn, that girl knew fashion.
Nessa brushed a curled lock of hair from Kylie’s shoulder. “If David could see you now, he’d dip you in chocolate and preserve you for all eternity.”
Aria and Stacy whipped around, demanding in unison, “Who’s David?”
Kylie cringed. Shit. “He’s nobody. Just a guy.”
“You didn’t mention a guy the last time we talked, Kylie,” Martha said, her brow furrowing in confusion and concern. “Are you… Are you seeing him?”
“No, it’s… It’s not like that,” Kylie tried, but Nessa interrupted.
“Ky’s been dating him for three weeks now.”
“Three weeks!” the Aria and Stacy stereo cried out in disbelief.
“It’s nothing serious.” Kylie shot a glare of accusation at Nessa, but she only had herself to blame. She should have had the foresight to warn Nessa to keep her mouth shut about David around Stacy and Aria. “We’re just talking. That’s all.”
“Kylie’s the one just talking,” Nessa said, not taking the hint. “David would prefer to do something else with his mouth.”
“Oh… What’s he like?” Stacy asked, having a hard time hiding her emotion.
She obviously wasn’t happy with the idea of Kylie dating, even if it was ‘just talking.’ Of anyone, Kylie thought Stacy would have understood her need to move on. Apparently not.
“He’s nothing special,” Kylie said.
“Nothing special, my ass! He’s tall, dark and handsome, with a body made of caramel marble,” Nessa mused, blessedly oblivious to the look of betrayal passing between Aria and Stacy. “He spends his days sculpting in sinfully rich chocolate, his nights melting into luscious erotica, and if he hasn’t already, he’s well on his way to falling in love with our girl, Ky. But she’s being evasive.”
“Is it… serious, between you guys?” Aria asked, the pain in her eyes unmasked.
“Nessa’s exaggerating. He’s a nice guy who’s interesting—that’s all there is to it.”
“How did you meet him?” Stacy asked.
“Let’s go, my dear. You’ll have all kinds of time to catch up later.” Cheryl, looking as sharp and coifed as a Southern lady in her lavender pantsuit, clapped her hands, mercifully breaking into the middle of their uncomfortable circle. “Time’s ticking away here, and the bride still needs to get dressed.” She turned to Nessa and asked, “Would you mind running up to tell Pastor Tom we might need another five minutes?”
Nessa rushed off. Once Aria took Stacy to the adjoining room to help her into her wedding dress, Cheryl focused her attention on the children, lining them up and preparing them for their flower-scattering duties. Martha turned to Kylie, her mouth open and her expression confused, but she only shook her head and walked away, out of the room completely.
“Mom,” Kylie called after her, but she continued down the hall toward the sanctuary. There was no mistaking the disappointment in her eyes, the intensity of it surprising.
The chaos in the room built into a feverous pitch, matching Kylie’s anxiety. After what felt like an eternity, Nessa popped her head through the door.
“You might want to speed it up in here! The groom looks like he’s about to pass out.” She then turned to Kylie, her smile one of childlike wonder. “Good gracious, Girlie, there are a lot of fine looking men in your little town. You guys have a hottie factory here or something?”
Kylie laughed. “Not that I know of.”
“You should see the best man! Ooh, la, la, that man is pure sex! You better believe I’m hittin’ that tonight!”
She pretended to swoon and gave Kylie a wink as she ducked back out. Kylie’s heart froze, her body went numb, slowly registering what Nessa had said.
No. Please, God, no, no, no, no…
She could feel the blood drain from her face as she choked out, “Who’s the best man?”
Aria ignored her question and ran to the door to cue the pianist.
“Who’s the best man?” Kylie asked again.
“No time for this now, Ky.” Handing her a bouquet, Aria refused to meet Kylie’s eyes.
Before Kylie could grab her and wring her neck, Aria squared her shoulders and took her first step out the door.
Cheryl pulled Kylie aside, out of the way. “Okay, the kids are next. Hurry! Hurry! The music’s started.” Cheryl ushered the boy/girl pairs toward the door, making sure they all had their baskets. “Remember to smile. And walk slow. Make the petals last all the way to the end of the aisle.”
Stacy gave Kylie a squeeze and whispered, “It’ll be okay, Kylie. You can do this.”
Her words confirmed Kylie’s fears—the best man was Jimmy. Shit.
“You said you didn’t even know if he was coming… You said it would only be fair to warn me…” Kylie stammered out in accusation, not sure if Stacy had fooled her, or if she had fooled herself.
Hadn’t she known, all along, he would be there?
Wasn’t that why she had returned?
To see him.
To be near him.
To convince herself she no longer needed him. No longer loved him.
“You look beautiful, Ky.”
“I think that was supposed to be my line. I’m so sorry.”
Stacy winked. “We’re improvising.”
Kylie forced on a smile. At least, she hoped she was smiling. Her stomach had twisted into knots and she couldn’t feel her face. Brayden clung to her leg, but she couldn’t feel him either. Her entire body had gone numb.
Stacy bent to adjust Brayden’s jacket. “Do you remember what you have to do, Bray?”
He shook his head.
“Follow behind the big kids, and then go stand next to Dan. And remember to be very, very quiet… Okay?”
He nodded. Cheryl took his little hand in hers. Together, they joined the end of the crooked line of children slowly squeezing through the door. Stacy slipped her hand into Kylie’s and gave her another squeeze of reassurance as they watched the last of the children file out of the room.
She was going to pass out. She was sure of it.
What the hell was she thinking? She should have said no.
She could still say no.
She could just run out the back door and forget the whole thing.
She could pretend to be sick. She felt like she was going to throw up anyway.
All she had to do is stop holding it back, and it would come on its own. Then she wouldn’t have to do this.
She didn’t want to do this.
She couldn’t do this.
There was no way she could do this…
She closed her eyes, whispered the first prayer that came to mind, the one she recited to Brayden every single night, “I hear no voice, I feel no touch, I see no glory bright, but yet I know that God is near, in darkness as in light…”
“Okay, Kylie,” Cheryl urged. “You’re up.”
Kylie felt a gentle nudge in the middle of her back, felt her feet begin to step forward.
Slowly, she made her way through the door and down the hall, through the archway and into the sanctuary. She kept her eyes to the floor, not looking at the altar. If she looked, she would lose it. The raging emotions she had been holding onto so tightly since that morning in her kitchen threatened to boil over as her stomach lurched violently.
She drew in a deep, deliberate breath through her nose to squelch the nausea. She straightened her back, squared her shoulders, as she took the first step amongst the petals, onto the fabric running the length of the aisle.
She could do this. She was strong. She could handle seeing—
Brayden’s call lifted her eyes to the altar, mesmerized as he started to run. The pillow flew from his hands and he danced the last ten feet, jumping straight into Jimmy Rogan’s arms.
Jimmy scooped him up and hugged him hard. Brayden’s little arms and legs wrapped around him as though he would never again let go. With his eyes closed tight, Jimmy held her son to his heart, kissing his face and stroking his hair.
It happened so fast her heart shattered, sending waves of agony straight through her core.
They were beautiful together.
Jimmy was as gorgeous as he had ever been—even more so in his black tux with his sandy hair cut close, shorter than usual. Even in winter he wore a permanent tan from spending his life outside, and she knew under his jacket his body was hard, pure, lean muscle. If she closed her eyes she could feel the silkiness of his skin beneath her fingertips, the memory of his strong, calloused hands on every inch of her body. She had loved him since she first saw him, long before he was hers to love, and even through the excruciating pain in her chest, she couldn’t deny seeing him again made her love him infinitely more than she ever had before.
Brent leaned into Jimmy and whispered a quick few words. Jimmy slowly opened his eyes and looked straight into Kylie, right into her soul. His expression became somber as he shifted Brayden in his arms, resting her son on his hip, almost daring her with his refusal to let him go. Aria retrieved the pillow with the rings still tacked in place, handed it up to Brayden, and kissed his cheek. Dan caught Kylie’s eye for a split-second, long enough to give her strength, and encourage her feet to move again.
As Kylie made her way up the aisle, she kept her eyes on Jimmy. She couldn’t have pulled them away if she’d wanted to. Her breathing became labored and a flush of heat rose up her neck as her proximity to him sent alternating waves of passion and hatred throughout her body.
Oh, how she hated him…
The piano chords of the music Dan chose for Stacy’s wedding march began as soon as Kylie took her place beside Aria. The room stood as one and turned to watch Stacy and Cheryl make their way down the aisle, but Kylie couldn’t take her eyes off her little boy in the arms of the man she hated. The man she loved. She stood watching helplessly as Brayden rested his head on Jimmy’s shoulder, tears shining in his eyes as he clutched onto Jimmy’s lapel for dear life.
Jimmy was watching Stacy, but Kylie could feel the tension radiating from his body as he struggled to keep his eyes away from hers… the eyes that had gazed into her soul as they made love in the late-night hours… the eyes that could make her blush with a glance and strip her bare with a lazy wink… the eyes she couldn’t stop dreaming about, that kept her awake until morning, wishing she could lose herself in them… just one more time… and cry out his name.