Jen sighed with frustration as she parked her car in the church lot. What a day. The dog had had an accident overnight, which she found when she stepped in it on her way to the bathroom. Then her boss had called her in on her day off for "just an hour or two". And now she, who was never late for anything, was hurrying toward the church for her sister's wedding rehearsal, twenty minutes late and covered with black grease smudges. It was just her luck, having the first flat tire of her life today, of all days. And even though she was dressed in a nice skirt and sweater, none of the cars that blew by her bothered to even slow down, much less stop to offer help. She wondered to herself as she climbed the steps and yanked open the heavy door, how many of those cars had been driven by tall, strong men who had forgotten what 'chivalry' meant. So she had changed it herself, grateful that her father had always wanted his daughters to be self-sufficient when it came to cars and men. And she was both.
The first thing she saw when she entered the chapel was her sister's worried face. Gina came hurrying down the aisle, her frown slowly turning into a smile that she tried to hide. "Don't say a word," Jen whispered harshly, then took a deep breath and tried to find a smile of her own as Gina linked her arm into Jen's and led her back toward the altar where the wedding party was assembled.
"The maid of honor has arrived!" she announced as she took her place.
"Better late than never," said the groom with a wink her way. Mike and Gina had met in college, and Jen already felt related to him because he'd been hanging around for six years now.
"Kind of like your proposal," Jen teased back, and the group snickered. As they all faced the pastor, Jen caught one of the groomsmen smirking her way, looking over her disheveled appearance, then he met her eyes boldly and she looked away. "Ugh," she thought. "What a jerk." The pastor did a quick review of what Jen had missed, then they went to their assigned spots for a run-through of the ceremony. Jen gave Gina the quick version of the flat-tire fiasco while they walked to the back of the church, then Gina pulled her closer and licked her thumb and started scrubbing at Jen's cheek.
"Eww," Jen groaned. "Will you stop it?"
"Would you rather look like a raccoon?" Gina reprimanded with another lick and a quick scrub, then let her go and whispered in her ear, "You're not mad, are you?"
Gina's motioned with her head up to where Mike and his groomsmen stood in a line. "The best man."
Jen took a peek, then frowned at her sister. "Who is it?"
Gina's eyes widened. "You seriously don't recognize him? It's Brad Trantham."
Jen sagged miserably. "You're kidding me. That's Brad Trantham?" He had been her tormenter in grade school, picking on her on the bus, tossing her lunch bag around to the other boys, calling her Midget. By the time she finally grew, the Tranthams had moved away, and boy was she relieved. "And I suppose he's my escort, since he's best man."
"Yup. Turns out he's Mike's cousin, and since Dave couldn't get leave, he moved up the line. "
Jen looked at Gina with pleading eyes. "Can I be demoted then? I'd be happy to be just a regular bridesmaid. I bet Lisa and I could switch dresses, and -"
"Aw, come on, Jen," Gina encouraged her as the bridal chorus started and the first bridesmaid stepped out. "It's just a walk back down the aisle and maybe one dance at the reception. Other than that, you can ignore him all you want. Please?"
"Do I have to?"
"Yes." Gina grinned and pushed Jen forward, and she walked up the aisle as she'd seen the other girls do, pretending to hold flowers, careful not to look anywhere but straight ahead
"You could smile, Jen," Mike reminded her, and she smirked at him and gave him a big, dazzling smile. But from the corner of her eye she could see Brad watching her, and it took all her willpower not to look his way. She stepped to the side and turned to watch her sister stepping up the aisle as regally as a queen until the last few feet, when she broke out her Broadway shuffle and did a big "ta-da!" in front of her groom.
Mike shook his head, laughing. "Remind me again why I'm marrying you?"
"Because I'm so darn cute."
"Oh yeah." He gave her a quick smooch and then the rehearsal resumed, the pastor telling them what to expect when, the singer singing the first few bars of her song. Mike requested extra rehearsal of the kiss, but Gina gave him a soft kick on the rear, and then it was time to walk the aisle. Mike and Gina went first, then Jen stepped forward to meet her escort, who held out his arm grandly. She took it, but so lightly that she hardly felt the fabric of his sleeve as they began walking.
"You might want to hold on tighter tomorrow," he whispered. "I'm sure you'll be wearing those ridiculous high heels women always insist on."
She ignored him and pulled away as they approached the bridal couple, who were waiting in the vestibule. She went around to Gina's side, farther from the men, and leaned forward. "Two walks," she hissed. "You owe me." The vestibule filled as the other couples joined them, then the pastor gave them a few last minute tips before they all walked out into the sunshine.
"Please, Lord, give us this sunshine again tomorrow," Gina asked the sky.
"And no humidity," Rachel said, pulling at her curling hair.
"And no flat tires," Jen added wearily. It was only two pm, but she was ready for today to be over with.
"Anybody want to go out for a drink?" Mike asked, but they all agreed they would rather wait for their respective bachelor-bachelorette parties that evening. The girls hugged as they said their goodbyes, and Jen sank gratefully into her car. If she could only make it through the party tonight without falling asleep, she'd be thankful.
The sunshine lasted long enough for the girls to get to the church and safely esconsed in the changing room. Jen did her sisterly duty, helping Gina dress and keeping her calm. The least she could do since Gina had actually picked a dress out for her that wasn't some hideous neon taffeta creation. She actually felt a little glamorous in it, which was unusual. She was a jeans-and-t-shirt type, and tennis shoes were definitely more comfortable than these strappy heels she had on. She remembered Brad's remark and did a little covert practicing, walking anywhere Gina needed her to go.. Weddings were so silly. A lot of trouble and expense just to say "I do" and sign the paper.
It was almost like a romantic comedy film in the last few minutes. A mad search for Gina's bouquet, a bridesmaid whose dress didn't want to zip, and a crash of thunder signaling that the sunshine was over for the day. But once the ceremony started, Jen felt nothing but happiness for her sister. Seeing Mike's smile as he watched his bride walking up the aisle, radiant in white. Her father's pride in his daughter, the little catch in his voice when he gave her away. She was glad she'd stashed a tissue in her bouquet by the end, and her tears turned to laughter when Mike kissed Gina and dipped her backwards like a dashing hero in an old movie.
She had almost forgotten the walk down the aisle until she grabbed hold of the proffered arm and started walking. "That's more like it," Brad said under his breath, putting his other hand over hers on his arm. "By the way, nice shoes."
Jen looked sideways at him, expecting some sort of arrogant smirk, but his smile was surprisingly real. She gave him a smile in return, somewhat of a leftover from the joy of the ceremony, and she actually felt him relax beside her. He'd been expecting her to be hostile, she realized. Maybe he had grown up, too. Maybe he hoped she'd forgotten. And she decided to pretend she had. To be the mature one. Brad who?
The reception was controlled chaos. So many people! Old relatives who didn't even recognize her. People who thought they did but had never actually met her. Mike's parents. Her own mother kept sending her on errands, and she just barely got back in time for the toasts and had to stay in the doorway so she wouldn't distract everyone. Mike's father was just starting, then her own dad's toast made her a little teary. Then the best man stood and cleared his throat. This should be interesting, she thought as Brad began to speak.
"Mikey and I grew up together," he began. "He was the good cousin, the one Grandma always told me I should try to be more like, while I systematically destroyed her house and broke her china." His churlish grin allowed the crowd to laugh. "As we got older and I failed to sway him to the dark side, I started to see that Mike had it all figured out. It's like the old saying, 'you catch more flies with honey.' He got the grades, the jobs, and the perfect woman. And if you look at the smile on his face, you can see that it was all worthwhile. He's one happy son of a gun today. Mike and Gina," he said as he held up his glass of champagne. "May you have many years of love and happiness. May you have the joy you have today, every day." He looked over the crowd and his eyes connected with Jen's. "And may you not have any sons that act like I did."
"Hear hear!" his audience said appreciatively, and everyone drank to the couple as he sat down again, and his eyes stayed locked with Jen's until she woke from her stupor and felt her cheeks reddening. She quickly walked through the tables to speak to her mother, who was chatting away to Mike's mother as they ate their cake.
"Jen, dear, didn't you get any cake?" Mrs. Hathaway asked. "It's delicious."
"No, not yet. I just wanted to tell you, Mom -"
"Now, Jen. Go get some cake. Relax, enjoy," her mother waved her away.
Jen stood and walked away, rolling her eyes as she headed for the cake table. She had gathered a napkin and plate, and held it out to the server, when a voice spoke up behind her. "May I get you some punch?" She turned with a smile, only to find Brad Trantham behind her. "It's hard to carry everything at once," he explained.
"Um... yes. Thank you." She took her cake from the server and found a fork, then waited as he grabbed two cups of punch and gestured toward two vacant seats. She led the way, praying not to trip on her stupid shoes, and sank down into the chair with a combination of relief and weariness.
"Hard day for the maid of honor, I guess," he noted. "I haven't seen you sit down once, until now."
"It does feel good," she admitted somewhat shyly. "It's been pretty hectic for the last week or so. Weddings are too much work." She took a bite of cake and sat back with a sigh. "Mmm. I love lemon." Suddenly she felt awkward. "Aren't you eating?"
"I did already."
"Oh." She wasn't sure what else to say. "Nice toast."
"Thanks. I sort of hoped you'd be back to hear it." He pulled his chair closer, just a touch, as if he wasn't doing anything at all, but she noticed. His voice dropped lower as he bent closer. "It was kind of meant for you too, you know. Like... an apology."
"Apology?" she asked innocently.
"You know. For being a brute to you when we were little."
"Oh, that." She took another bite of cake. "Then, I guess I should say you're forgiven."
He sat back, eyeing her curiously. "Not if you don't want to."
She set her fork down, chagrined. "No, I mean... I do want to. And thank you."
"You're welcome." He saw her reach for her cup of punch and he pushed it toward her. And right off the table into her lap.
"Oh!" she gasped, trying to stand, then realizing it wouldn't help anything.
"Oh hell," he muttered angrily, grabbing a napkin and trying to blot the mess from her dress. When she grabbed the napkin away, he realized he'd been dabbing away where he shouldn't have been, and he sat back and dropped his forehead into his palm. "I'm sorry. It was an accident, I swear."
"I know." Jen dabbed at her dress a moment more, then gave up with a sigh. "Oh well. If I can wear axle grease at the rehearsal, I guess I can wear punch at the reception." Brad's hand dropped and she saw his expression, embarrassed and yet curious, and she smiled.
"You're okay, Jennifer," he said. "You grew up... nice."
"So did you. You know, except for the whole pouring punch on people thing."
She chuckled, and he joined her with a relieved laugh, just as the deejay announced the first dance. "Uh oh," Jen breathed. Brad looked at her, then at her dress, and grimaced as he realized her dilemma. They would be joining Mike and Gina on the dance floor for the next song.
"You want my jacket?" he offered, staring to shrug out of his suit jacket, but she shook her head.
"No. Thanks, but... no."
"Club soda, maybe, for the dress?"
"Then I'll just look like I spilled two drinks on me instead of one."
"I spilled," he corrected, slumping back in his chair. "I'm such a klutz."
"It's okay, you know," she said, reaching out and touching his arm before she realized it, then she clasped her hands in her lap.
"I am sorry. I guess I'm nervous."
"What's there to be nervous about? Your toast is over."
"It's not that. It's more like... the company."
He saw her withdraw. "No, Jennifer. I didn't mean... I meant... aw, hell... I mean, um. Darn." His face was flaming. "I meant because you're being so nice to me when I don't deserve it. And you're... well, you're really pretty."
She looked at him with surprise. "Oh." Applause rang out around them as the first dance ended and the deejay called for the best man and maid of honor to take the floor.
"Wanna make a run for it?" he asked softly, a crooked grin on his face.
"Heck no. Just lead the way, and I'm gonna be right behind you. And I mean, close behind."
"No problem." He stood and took her hand as she got up, then led the way to the dance floor with her right on his heels, using his broad back to hide the front of her dress from the other guests. He drew her into his arms right away, closer than she expected him to, and they began dancing smoothly as the music played. There was a light smattering of applause and then they were joined by the rest of the wedding party, and he loosened his hold and looked down at her. "I think we pulled it off. Nobody screamed at the sight of you."
"Not today, anyway," she laughed. "It's a different story when I've got my ratty old bathrobe on at home with the dog."
He stepped in a little closer again, looking over her shoulder. "I bet you could even make a ratty old robe look pretty darn good."
Jen felt herself blushing and looked around the room. Her father and mother were dancing together, talking and smiling like youngsters. And Mike and Gina were swaying together, Gina catching Jen's eye for a wink and a brow wiggle in Brad's direction. Jen stuck out her tongue and giggled.
"What?" Brad asked, looking her way again.
He kept her on the dance floor for the next song too, until her father cut in, and then he disappeared. And when she sat back down at the table they'd been sharing and glanced around, she didn't see him anywhere. Oh well, she thought, at least they'd made up. Or whatever you'd call it. She still could hardly believe this was the same Brad Trantham. I mean, this guy was... nice. And... cute. And he called her Jennifer. Nobody called her Jennifer. But she liked it.
She felt a tap on her shoulder and looked up hopefully, then sagged a little. "Oh, hi, Mom."
"You're needed in the chapel. The photographer's ready to finish up the group pictures."
"Oh crap!" She'd forgotten. She looked down at her dress in dismay, and her mother followed her gaze and sighed.
"Oh, Jen. You didn't."
"It's not like I did it on purpose, Mother."
Her mother rolled her eyes. "You never do. And don't start with the 'Mother'." She pulled Jen to her feet and headed her toward the door. "Just do what you can."
Now she knew where Brad had gone. He stood with the rest of the groomsmen in a group around Mike and Gina, posing and smiling for the photographer. Jen slid into the front pew with the other bridesmaids and Brad caught her eye and smiled. She liked the way he smiled. Maybe she'd order a few copies of those pictures for herself. Or.. not. She shook her head at her romantic ideas. After today, he'd be gone, and she'd just have a memory of a childhood enemy turned friend. Which was okay. Maybe.
Mike and Gina left to change into their going-away clothes, and the groomsmen headed down the steps, joking around with each other as they joined the ladies. The photographer asked for Lisa and John, the first pair of attendants, and they rose and headed forward. Brad slid in just beside Jen and they watched the photographer at work. "Any bright ideas?" he asked quietly.
"Oh." She looked down at it again. Darn strawberry punch. Why couldn't Gina have chosen pineapple? "Not really. I guess I'll just have to wing it."
They watched silently as the next pair, and then the next, posed and smiled. Jen was relieved that Gina had left the room. At least she wouldn't have to see her sister's disappointment. Then, their turn came. Brad took her hand as she got to her feet and they walked to the front.
"Well." The photographer had noticed the stains right away, of course, and he surveyed Jen with a resigned expression. "This will be interesting."
"It's not a problem," Brad reassured him. "Come here, Jennifer." He extended his hand and when Jen stepped up to him, he drew her into a loose hold that covered the spots from view, and the photographer nodded. Jen's relieved smile came easily while the shutter clicked away. With the next pose and the next, Brad continued to guard their secret from posterity, standing two steps below her and in front of her for one shot, drawing her arms forward and around his broad shoulders as he looked up at her with a grin for the next.
And then they were done. "Thanks," she whispered down at him, giving his shoulders a light squeeze of gratitude.
He waited while the bridal party gathered for a few last shots, then stood to escort her outside. He stayed by her side, helping her through the crowd that had gathered waiting for Mike and Gina to leave, staying close enough to shield her dress from view. The happy couple stepped out and the guests cheered as Gina hefted her bouquet high and waved it around, signaling the single women to gather. Jen tried to hide behind Brad, but someone caught her and pushed her forward. And then there she was, front and center. Gina's brows rose at the sight of her ruined dress, but then she giggled and sent Jen a wink, and Jen knew she was forgiven. Still she was relieved that she wasn't the one to catch the bouquet, although she could swear Gina aimed for her. Jen wove her way back through the crowd to Brad's side.
"Too bad," he teased. "I guess you're single for a while longer."
"Well, it's your turn now," she retorted. "Garter toss time."
He took a step back, but his family starting egging him forward with the other single men, and he gave in with a grin. "But if I catch it," he tossed back to Jen as he moved forward, "Do I have to marry Bouquet Woman or is it free choice?"
"Bouquet Woman!" she called after him as he joined the other men. A cheer went up when the garter was snapped. Jen was too short to see who'd caught it, but he came back a minute later looking sheepish. "Well?" she asked.
He shrugged and smiled. "I ducked."
Jen felt a happy warmth spread inside her, but when she saw her sister headed for the car, her smile faded away. "Gina, wait!" She pushed her way through the crowds of well-wishers, afraid she would miss her chance to say goodbye as the throng closed in around the couple. "Mom!" she called out desperately, and her mother heard her and asked people to let her through. She reached the car just as Mike opened the door for his new wife, and suddenly it hit her that things would be different from then on. No more movie nights in the apartment she'd shared with Gina. No more yelling good night across the hall. No more arguing over who didn't do the dishes. The apartment would be still and quiet tonight. And every night. She reached out for Gina's arm. "Gi?"
"Jen!" Gina grabbed her into a tight hug. "Don't forget to get milk on the way home. We drank the last of it with the cookies."
"And... I'll call you from the resort."
"Have fun in Jamaica. Get a tan for me."
"I will." Gina pulled away and smiled. "Love you, sissy."
"Love you too." Gina let her go and gave a last hug and kiss to her mom and dad, and then with a big wave and a slam of the car doors, they were off. Jen watched the car as the guests began to wander back inside, then she turned and watched her parents. Her dad put an arm around her mom as the hanky came out and the eyes were dabbed, then they laughed and snuggled together as they went inside. Jen smiled to herself. One day, she wanted what they had.
"You okay?" It was Brad.
She sighed wistfully. "Yeah, I'm fine. Maybe weddings aren't so bad after all."
"Did you think they were?" he asked with a surprised smile, and she shrugged and looked up at him.
He put a hand lightly on the small of her back as they started for the door. "How about one more dance before we go?"
She looked down at herself. "I want to take off this dress first."
He grinned. "If you say so." She slapped him on the arm, and he laughed as they went inside. "Okay, how about you change, and I'll change, and I'll meet you on the dance floor in five minutes?"
She wrinkled her nose. "I only brought jeans. I'll look kind of funny, won't I?"
"Like you've looked so good in punch."
She joined his laughter. "Good point. Okay, five minutes."
She came back into the reception hall four minutes later, comfortable in jeans and her favorite blouse, and he was there waiting in the middle of the dance floor. She looked over his jeans and Packers jersey and nodded approvingly, then he held out his arms and she came into them. "So," he said close to her ear, "can I get you some punch?"
She pulled back to look at him, a coy smile on her face. "Maybe I'll get you some this time."
He gazed into her eyes, his smile fading away, and as he bent his head toward hers, Jen decided for sure that weddings were wonderful.