“Thank you,” I said, as the wedding march began to play in the chapel.
I smiled, and took a deep breath. “Ready.”
Both doors swept open, held by two young local boys, and our smal audience stood.
Eli leaned into my ear. “You are breathtaking, by the way.” He took a step, and I fol owed his lead. Together we walked slowly down the aisle.
The sanctuary was a bit dim, with beams of sun breaking through the windows and spotlighting the different faces of our friends and family. The dust motes slowly floated in and out of the sunshine, delicate and graceful. I saw Jared’s Uncle Luke, first. I was surprised to see him, and it must have showed, because he and his wife Maryse chuckled softly at my expression. I was glad to see Chad sitting next to my mother, although it wouldn’t have occurred to her to feel…wel , anything...I didn’t want her to be alone. Lil ian, Luke and Maryse sat together in the first of the heavy, wooden pews, paral el to Cynthia and Chad. Luke whispered something into his sister’s ear, and Lil ian nodded, taking a deep, satisfied breath.
And then, I saw him. Jared stood next to Bex at the head of the chapel, at the top of a few steps that lead to the pulpit and the rest of the stage. Eli waited before he took a step, sensing that I had stopped in my tracks. Jared was dressed in a khaki suit with a white-button-up shirt. The top button was undone, and he skipped the tie. He looked perfect, and his bright blue-gray eyes were locked on me, over a slightly nervous, beaming smile.
Without thinking, I took a step, now anxious more than ever to be next to him. Eli picked up his pace as my feet insisted on placing the rest of me next to the man I loved more than life itself. My love for Jared surpassed needing normal, enough to conquer fate and beat death. In that moment I couldn’t fathom why I had waited so long, and I wanted to be nowhere else but in that chapel, making the easy promise to love him forever.
The reverend was short, swal owed by his officiant’s gown. His brown skin was dul and wrinkled, but his kind smile brightened his face. He spoke in a thick accent. “Hel o, Nina. I’m Father Julian.”
I nodded, my gaze returning to Jared.
“We gather here, in the presence of God and this company, that Jared and Nina be united in holy matrimony. We here to celebrate and share in glorious act that God is about to perform—the act by which He converts their love for one another into holy and sacred state of marriage.
“This relationship is honorable and sacred, established by our Creator for welfare and happiness of humanity, and approved by Apostle Paul as honorable among all men. It is designed to unite two sympathies and hopes into one; and rests upon mutual confidence and devotion of husband and wife. May it be in extreme thoughtfulness and reverence, and in dependence upon divine guidance, that you enter now into this holy relationship.”
Jared didn’t take his eyes from mine. Just a few feet away from him, Father Julian stepped down to meet me. He looked to Eli, and spoke with a thick accent, “Being assured that your love and your choice of each other as lifelong companions are in God's wil and that you have your families’ blessings. I now ask. Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”
“We do,” Eli said with confidence. He spoke for my father, for Cynthia. He might have even spoken for Gabe, but I felt Heaven was smiling on the moment.
Eli lifted my hand to his lips and kissed my knuckles, and then took Jared’s hand, placing his gently under mine. With a smal , tender squeeze, Eli left us alone at the bottom of the steps, disappearing behind the double doors he had just helped me through.
Jared raised an eyebrow, a permanent smile etched on his face. “That was unexpected.”
“Jack sent him,” I said, feeling my eyes gloss over.
Jared touched my face once, and then the reverend spoke again. This time his voice blurred into the background as I watched the blues and grays of Jared’s eyes shine in ways I’d never seen them. His expression was relaxed and nervous; happy and concerned; every emotion he’d ever felt col ided inside of him in a beautiful display of the barely noticeable shifts in the skin around his eyes and mouth. No one could have noticed it but me, and I read each one as he struggled with a lifetime of duty, and the relief of hearing me promise myself to him.
“Jared Ryel?” Father Julian said. “Are you ready to enter into this marriage with Nina Grey, believing the love you share and your faith in each other wil endure all things?”
“I am,” Jared said simply.
Our smal audience laughed at my haste. Jared chuckled as wel .
Father Julian regrouped, and then finished his part. “Are you ready to enter into this marriage with Nina Grey, believing the love you share and your faith in each other wil endure all things?”
I waited for the minister to correct his mixup, but he never did.
I nodded quickly. “To Jared Ryel. Yes. I’m ready.”
Father Julian didn’t skip a beat. “Nina, do you take Jared to be your wedded husband? Promise to love him, to honor and cherish him, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, and to be to him in all things a good and faithful wife as long as you both shal live?”
Father Julian repeated Jared’s vows. The closer he came to the end, the tighter Jared’s fingers were around mine. Final y, when it came time for Jared to speak, he didn’t hesitate.
“Yes, and after that,” Jared said. “For a thousand years, and then a thousand more…I wil love you.”
A smile stretched across my face. His hands were cupped around mine a bit too tight, and his body leaned into mine eagerly. This was the moment he had waited for, and he seemed to want to take it all in and rush it at the same time so nothing could keep him from it. That moment in time was the light switch in a dark room, the doorway at the end of a scary hal way. It was anything and everything that had ever saved anyone.
Father Julian closed his eyes. “Father in heaven, You ordained marriage for your children, and You gave us love. We present to You Jared and Nina, who come this day to be married. May the covenant of love they make be blessed with true devotion and spiritual commitment. We ask that You, God, wil give them the ability to keep the covenant they have made. When selfishness shows itself, grant generosity; when mistrust is a temptation, give moral strength; when there is misunderstanding, give patience and gentleness; if suffering becomes a part of their lives, give them a strong faith and an abiding love. Amen.”
I opened my eyes to see Jared looking at me with total love and devotion, more so than I ever saw in the proud eyes of my father.
“What token do you give to perform your vows?”
Bex opened his hand, and Jared plucked a white gold band from his brother’s palm.
“Nina,” Jared said softly. He closed his eyes, thought for a moment, and then looked into my eyes. “What can I say to you that I haven’t already said? What can I give you that I haven’t already given? Is there anything of me that isn’t yours already? My body, my mind, my heart, even my soul.
Everything that is me belonged to you long before this, and it shal be yours long after this. I wil fol ow you anywhere and everywhere you lead. I wil keep you and anyone created with our love safe from all harm. From this day on, I choose you, my beloved, to be my wife. To live with you and laugh with you; to stand by your side, and sleep in your arms; to bring out the best in you always, and, for you, to be the most that I can. I promise to laugh with you in good times, to struggle with you in bad; to wipe your tears with my hands; to comfort you with my words; to mirror you with my soul; and savor every moment, happy or sad, until the end of our lives and beyond.”
A long pause fol owed Jared’s words. No one moved; an awe-inspired silence swept the chapel as everyone took in his breathtaking promise.
He took my hand, and slipped the ring onto my finger. It glided over my skin, and rested next to my diamond engagement ring, as if it was returning home.
“D-do you,” Father Julian stuttered, “Nina, have a token to perform your vows?”
I turned to Beth, whose mascara streaked her cheeks. She opened her hand to reveal Jared’s simple wedding band. I took it from her, and turned to face him.
He grinned, waiting on my promise. I had thought about my vows many times after we decided to write our own. Our relationship had never been traditional, so we chose to make our promise to each other unique to us. I took a deep breath. Nothing I would say would be nearly as articulate and beautiful as what he had said, but I knew wel enough by now that he would love every syl able.
“Jared,” I whispered. I held his hand, and then placed the ring around the tip of his finger. “I choose you as my best friend, and my love for life. I promise you my deepest love, my ful est devotion, my most tender care…through the pressures of the present and the uncertainties of the future, I promise to be faithful to you. It wasn’t until just now that I recognize that this wasn’t coincidence, or a battle. We were always meant for each other.
Our love is heaven sent, and I promise to honor that forever and always. From this day forward, you won’t walk alone. My heart wil be your shelter and my arms wil be your home.”
The mixed emotions scrol ing across Jared’s face disappeared; the only one left was happiness. I pushed his ring over his knuckle, and he squeezed my hand.
Father Julian put his hand over ours. "What God has joined together, let no man put asunder. Jared and Nina have consented together in holy matrimony, and witnessed the same before God and this company, have pledged their love and loyalty to each other, and have declared the same by the joining and the giving of rings. By the authority of the state, I pronounce that they are husband and wife." A smal sigh emanated throughout the chapel, and Jared let out a breath of relief, fol owed by a smal smile.
“Kiss your wife,” Father Julian said with a smile.
Jared cupped my cheeks, looked into my eyes, and then pul ed me to him, touching his soft lips to mine. He kissed me gently at first, and then wrapped his arms around me, his lips forgetting everyone and everything around us. We were married. He was my husband, and I was his wife.
He pul ed away. His eyes brimmed with tears, and he looked as overwhelmed with happiness as I felt. I pul ed him to me by his shirt to kiss him one last time.
“I now present to you, Mr. and Mrs. Jared Ryel,” the minister said loudly.
Jared's smile faded, and he gritted his teeth.
“Not today,” he said, closing his eyes.
The inside of the chapel darkened. The sunlight coming through the windows dimmed, but it was early afternoon. The air around grew cold and stale. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. Fearing the worst, I was desperate for a mundane explanation. “A storm?”
Jared's eyes darkened. “I'm sorry.”
The sound of the tropical winds that regularly blew against the building was noticeably absent, and soon the only light was the dim flickering of a few sconces along the wal s of the church. I shot a nervous glance over my shoulder at our friends and family below. They were frozen in time.
I quickly walked down the stairs, with Jared just behind. My movement didn’t faze the smal crowd, and I gasped, fal ing to my knees. “Lil ian?” I said, reaching out.
Her hands were folded daintily in her lap, a smal smile suspended on her face. I stood and took a step to the next pew, realizing in horror that the living statues' eyes were all stil fastened to the space where Jared and I once occupied.
“Beth?” I whispered, reaching out to touch her cheek. Her skin was stil warm. “She’s not breathing,” I said, looking back to my new husband. Bex stood at Jared's side. He frowned before looking to his brother. Only the humans were affected.
“He must have claimed a grievance,” Bex said.
“Shax?” I asked.
Jared shook his head. “Michael...for murdering his son.” He closed his eyes and took my hand, holding it against his chest. “No matter what happens, Nina, stay with Bex,” he said.
“What do you mean? Where are you going?” I said. He took a step toward the double doors of the chapel. With my free hand, I grabbed at the fabric of his jacket. “Jared,” I whispered. His demeanor terrified me.
The double doors opened, and Eli stood in the entrance, his expression blank. “I'm sorry, Jared. This can't wait.”
Jared nodded, and then tilted his head to the side, speaking under his breath. “Don't speak, Nina. Let me handle this.”
I agreed without words. Jared led me through the doors, to the top of the chapel steps. The sky was black, the darkness filtering down to surround our chapel. Several dark forms stood in formation at the bottom of the stairs. Jared continued. With each step closer to the unknown, my heart seemed to be punching through my chest. Final y, I was face to face with Jared’s accusers, but they remained a mystery. Their faces were obscured by the hoods of black cloaks. If they were angels, they were much more frightening than any I’d encountered.
Eli stood on the other side of Jared, waiting patiently for something, but I knew better than to ask. After a few moments the black forms parted, and two figures, differing dramatical y in size, walked forward. Eli made a subtle motion with his hand, and the air around the smal assemblage created its own light, leaving a muted glow. I glanced at him from the corner of my eye, and he winked at me. I was the only one unable to see clearly through the darkness. Eli lit the surroundings solely for my human eyes.
His consideration set me somewhat at ease. He won’t let anything happen to us, I thought.
Any feeling of comfort offered by Eli’s smal gesture didn’t last long. The two forms were now recognizable, and a lump formed in my throat at Claire's nervous expression as she walked alongside Samuel.
“What are you doing here? Where’s Ryan?” I asked.