Page 2

“Mother,” I said, surprised.

She wore a champagne-colored sheath dress. Even after marching through a tropical rain shower and the mud in six-inch heels, her dress and matching shoes were immaculate. Her hair was pul ed back into its usual tight French bun, making her eyes even more severe when she pul ed of her sunglasses and huffed.

“I apologize for my lateness, Nina dear. I had several functions to reschedule, since my presence was demanded at such late notice.”

“Sorry,” Beth and I said at the same time.

“Wel ,” she sighed. “You are my only daughter. We do what we must.” I smiled, and Cynthia took the few steps to offer a cold embrace. The awkward gesture was the most she could offer; knowing that made me appreciate it more than others might have. She quickly let go, and offered a polite smile. “You look wonderful, dear.”

“Thank you. I was just about to step into my dress….”

“Oh. Wel , then, I’ll just step out,” Cynthia said.

I fidgeted. “Would you mind helping?”

Cynthia hesitated. “Er…Isn’t that why Beth is here?”

“No,” Beth smiled. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

Cynthia’s eyes scanned my dress and its yards of white silk, and clouded with tears. “Oh, my,” she whispered, pulling a tissue from her purse.

I was taken aback. Cynthia rarely cried. In fact, she’d only found two occasions in my lifetime for it, and both had more to do with my father.

“It’s okay, Mother,” I said, hesitating to find an appropriate place to comfort her. I settled on her shoulder, patting awkwardly a few times.

She sniffed once, lifting her chin to ward off the uninvited emotion. “It’s just that Silk Charmeuse wrinkles so easily.”

I nodded. “I know.”

After one last dab at her eyes with the tissue, she turned. “Beth best assist you, darling. Cal for me when you’re dressed.” She closed the door behind her, and I turned to Beth.

“I’m so sorry,” Beth whispered. “I thought…I waited for her because I thought she’d like to be involved. I should have known better. Now you both just feel awkward.”

“It was worth a try. One never knows with Cynthia. She might have been insulted if I hadn’t asked, so you did the right thing.”

“Did I?”

I smiled. “You did. Now help me get this thing on, and let’s not let it wrinkle. I don’t want to upset my mother.”

Beth nodded, and careful y pul ed the dress from its hanger. “Neither do I.”

Chapter Two


“She was right,” Beth said, tears in her eyes. “It does wrinkle easy.”

I nodded, staring at my reflection in the ful -length mirror Beth had brought for the occasion. The woman staring back at me was soft and mature, draped in the muted sheen of silk and chiffon. Beth wasn’t human after all ; only magic could have transformed me into the elegant, graceful creature in the mirror.

Soft, blonde curls caressed my shoulders, and just a hint of blush and pink lip gloss reminded me that I had makeup on at all . Beth had spent hours making sure that I appeared timeless and natural.

Beth clapped her hands together and held them tight to her chest, as impressed at her work as I. “Jared is going to crap!”

I laughed. “I knew eventual y Oklahoma would break free from the professional East Coast stylist role you’ve played today!”

Beth gathered the tools she used to transform me, rol ing wires and putting the various bags of makeup into the different tubs the vil agers had carried to the casita. I stood in place, afraid to move. The realization hit that the church was miles away, across a muddy jungle, and I was wearing white.

I blanched. “Oh, God. Cynthia wil stroke out if this dress is soiled before the wedding.”

“If she can get here without a speck, I’m sure she can get you to the church mud-free.”

“You’re probably right,” I nodded, trying to relax.

“I wish Kim could be here,” Beth said, shaking her head. “I cal ed her, but she’s out of town.”

“I understand. This was very sudden.” I hated lying to Beth, especial y while she was being the poster child for a best friend, but I already knew Kim wouldn’t be at my wedding. She was two hospital rooms down from Ryan, nursing wounds she’d sustained when Isaac had sent her flying across the cathedral of St. Anne’s. It wasn’t right that she had saved my life, and instead of being at her side, I was primping in a tropical paradise.

“She did say to tel you to not worry about her. She said she’s fine and she wants you to enjoy your day…why would you worry?” Beth said. Her question was a second thought, as if it hadn’t crossed her mind until that moment.

“When do I not worry about her?” I said, fidgeting with my dress.

Beth thought for a moment. “True,” she agreed, carrying on with tidying up the room. “Okay, I’m going to grab your mom, and then I’m going to get ready. If you need anything, I’m just a casita away.”

“Beth?” I cal ed.

“Yes?” she said, spinning around.

“Thank you,” I smiled. “For everything.”

Beth returned my smile. “Of course.”

“And Beth?”

“Yes?” she said. She was clearly impatient about getting to her casita.

“Think I could sit for a while?”

“Oh!” Beth said, rushing to fetch me a chair. “Here. This one has a back on it so you can relax. Thirsty?”

“Not at the moment. You are the best maid of honor, ever.”

“I know,” she beamed. She backed out of my room, shutting the door on her wide and excessively proud smile.

With Beth’s absence the room became uncomfortably quiet, but I didn’t feel alone. I looked down to my stomach. Bean was invisible, nestled under the fabric of the dress I would wear to marry her father. I placed both of my hands above my bump, and smiled. Would Bean know he or she was a guest at our wedding? The thought of a tiny body inside of me with a fancy dress or tux on made me giggle.

“What’s funny?” Cynthia said as she entered the room. “Certainly not the sight of you. You’re a vision.” I smiled and stood so that she might get a better look. “I’ve arranged for a car. Wel , not so much a car as a beat-up truck, but it wil get us to the chapel.”

“I wondered how I would get there and keep my dress white.”

Cynthia frowned. “I didn’t say it wouldn’t be difficult. I’ve considered wrapping you in plastic. It wil take all of us along with a concentrated effort, but it can be done.”

“Thank you,” I smiled. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

Again, a deluge of emotion caught Cynthia off-guard, and she furiously searched through her purse for a tissue. Before the first tear could pour over her lashes, she dabbed it away. “I’ve never,” she said, annoyed. “I hope this doesn’t continue throughout the day.”

I rested in the chair and Cynthia sat on the bed, seeming uncomfortable and out of place, yet she remained cordial and poised. She brought up appropriate subjects such as the weather, and stayed far away from anything that might induce another onslaught of tears. We shared a few polite laughs, and I silently prayed that Beth would return sooner rather than later.

“Ding dong!” Bex said, opening the door. “The truck is less than a mile away. You ready?”

“Something like that,” I sighed.

Beth popped in behind Bex. Her smile lit up the room. She was stunning in her French blue cocktail dress, and for the first time since I’d met her, she actual y looked like the former beauty queen that she was. Her lips were stained a wine color, and her short auburn hair was wavy and soft instead of sticking out in every direction. “Oh, good!” Beth squealed as the engine grew louder upon the truck’s approach. “It’s like a Bronco! It has a back seat!”

“That’s nice,” I said, minding my mother’s expression as I gathered my skirt.

The trip from my chair to the door was uneventful, but the preparations for me to step outside into the murky jungle were firmly coordinated by my mother. Cynthia barked orders at Bex, Beth, and the driver. Bex lifted me and held me away from his body—at Cynthia’s request—to keep from wrinkling the dress further. Beth and Cynthia held any protruding pieces out and away as Bex made his way to the truck, and then help spread the fabric while he lowered me to the backseat. Cynthia’s tactic worked. I was seated atop a clean blanket, and my dress remained untouched by the jungle.

Bex led us to the chapel on a dirt bike, while Cynthia commandeered the passenger seat. Beth squeezed against the door to my right to give the dress plenty of room.

“You are all being a little ridiculous about this dress. Once I get out of the truck, the wrinkles wil fal ,” I said.

“It’s possible. What wil you do if mud is splattered on it? Have you found a dry cleaner on the island?” Cynthia asked.

“Good point.”

Within half an hour, the truck was bouncing over familiar cobblestone streets. My heart pounded against my chest when the chapel’s steeple appeared above the palm trees, and I could barely restrain myself from bursting from the truck and running inside when the fountain, and then the wooden double doors came into view. Jared was inside, and the wait had already been an awful test of my patience.

Beth lightly touched the top of my hand, and only then did I realize I was tapping her knee.

“We’re here,” she said, pulling at the door handle.

Bex stood on the walkway with a wide grin on his face. “You look good.”

“Thanks,” I said, touched by his sentiment.

“Al right, enough chitchat. We’re not in the church, yet,” Cynthia said, orchestrating another transfer. She lifted the hem of one side of my dress while directing Beth to lift the other, and together we climbed the steps.

Inside, Lil ian waited. Once recognition hit, her eyes lit up, and she clapped her hands together, quickly bringing them to her mouth. “Oh. Oh my goodness,” she said, tears glossing her eyes. “You’re even more beautiful than I imagined.” She looked to Cynthia. “It’s so good to see you,” she said, hugging her old friend.

“As it is you,” Cynthia said with a warm but demure smile.

Lil ian blotted her eyes with a tissue and shook her head. She looked upon me with pure love and adoration. She had always regarded me with an adulation that I never quite understood, but the look in her eyes was new to me.

“May I seat you?” Bex said to Cynthia, offering his arm.

“Yes, thank you,” she said, walking with Bex into the church.

Lil ian watched them disappear behind the door, and then leaned into my ear. “You don’t know how long I’ve waited for this moment. You’ve always been family, Nina. I can’t explain it,” she whispered. A sweet, innocent laugh escaped her throat. “Some nights, after Jack and Cynthia took you home after I’d make you all dinner, I would cry.”

My eyebrows popped up. Lil ian was always so candid about her feelings for me. Even so, her words surprised me.

“Gabe used to shake his head. He always thought me to be irrational when it came to you. But each time you left my home, I felt I was letting my daughter go away to live with someone else. I must sound crazy. It sounds sil y to say out loud. I…I just wanted to tel you how happy it makes me that after today…I can cal you my daughter.”

I hugged her to me. The intensity of emotion in the room was overwhelming. I didn’t hear crazy. Lil ian’s words sounded like love.

“No, no, no, no…,” Beth said, pulling a tissue from her purse. “Don’t cry. Your mascara is waterproof, but it’s not magic. It could smudge.” She careful y dabbed under my eyes. “You’re only marrying the man of your dreams soon. What’s to cry about?”

I smiled. “Touché.”

The music sounded. Beth handed me an exquisite bouquet of pink and white tulips, winked at me, and then slid out of the double doors to take her walk. I stood alone in the vestibule, in my dress, holding my favorite flowers—the same Jared presented me on our first date. I was amazed, then, at the coincidence. Now it just made me smile. Why he was ever nervous about whether I would fal in love with him was a mystery. Not only was he the most thoughtful, most selfless and loving person I knew, he was also armed with the knowledge of all my likes and dislikes. He was more armed to win me over more than any man could any woman. The tulips were perfect. Jared had sent me this very bouquet many times over the course of our relationship. It just occurred to me that these flowers had also been sent to me before our relationship; on birthdays, my high school graduation, and I remember feeling comforted by a wreath at my father’s funeral bearing the same flowers. Jared had never mentioned it before, but I knew they were from him. That thought made me smile. He had loved me for a long time, and now I was about to walk down the aisle of our chapel, on our island, to pledge my eternal love to him. Life had never felt so right.

I thought about my father, and wished he were next to me. I imagined him in a smart tuxedo with teary eyes, fawning over my dress and how beautiful and grown up I looked. As a little girl, I imagined him giving me away at my wedding, and now he would have to do it from Heaven.

“I know you can see me, Daddy,” I whispered, closing my eyes.

Suddenly, I was no longer alone. Someone was beside me, with an arm hooked around my elbow.

“Hope you don’t mind a wedding crasher. Jack sent me,” Eli winked and tightened his grip.

“N-No,” I said, shaking my head. “Of course not.”

“I’ve always wanted to do this.” He stretched his neck and shoulders. “Looked like fun.”