Authors: Michele Dunaway
“I can understand that,” Jack replied. “You spend a lot of years in complacency and mediocrity because it's easier than facing the world by yourself.”
“Twenties suck. I'm glad to be almost out of them.”
“So you're not going to get on my case about buying a tree?”
She shook her head. “No. You'll get one when you're ready.”
They'd finished their drinks and returned the mugs to the washtub.
“You still up for hockey?” Jack asked. He held her bags in one hand and reached with the other.
Kat grinned. “You bet.”
“Then let's go.”
By the end of the evening, as Jack walked her to her back door, Kat realized she was smiling that goofy grin a woman gets when she's happy. The Blues had defeated the L.A. Kings by three, and she and Jack had been behind the Blues bench, in the top part of Section 103 where they'd had a great view of the action. He draped an arm around her.
“You want to come up?”
“Just to carry these up,” Jack replied. He followed her up the back stairs and set her packages inside on the kitchen table. Immediately Pippa and Ty vied for her attention.
“See, if you get any pets, they'll greet you when you get home,” she said.
He picked up Pippa, who flopped into his arms and sprawled out, stomach up. “Look how loose she is.”
“I know. She's like Jell-O. I've never had a cat who did that before.”
“I had a good time today,” Jack said suddenly. “Thanks for going.”
“So did I help reinvigorate your holiday spirit?” Kat teased.
“Maybe a little,” Jack admitted. He scratched Pippa's head, and the cat closed her eyes and began to purr. “She's a sweetheart. So are you.” He kept the cat between them like a shield. “Where do we go from here?”
“I don't know. What do you want?” Kat asked.
I want you.
The words came from his core and shook his very foundation. “I don't want us to get hurt.”
“Then let's keep playing things by ear. As long as we promise to be honest with each other, then we should be fine.”
“You really believe that?”
Kat wasn't one hundred percent sure, but she knew for certain she didn't want Jack walking out the kitchen door. “Yes. So why don't you put Pippa down and kiss me?”
He grinned, let the cat go. Pippa dropped gently to the floor and headed for her food dish. “When did you become so bossy and demanding?”
“Probably once Mr. December first seduced me.”
“Oh. Well, he wasn't wearing a Santa hat.”
Kat grabbed Jack and drew him to her for a long kiss. “Don't worry,” she told him. “That can be arranged.”
Six days later, Kat sat in the second row pew, right behind Jack's parents and grandparents, crammed between aunts, uncles, cousins, and other miscellaneous family members. Kat had met Jack's stepfather's parents and his maternal grandparents at last night's rehearsal dinner, along with younger sister, Brenna.
Brenna and Sharon were in the wedding, along with Jack and Matt, who stood beside Brian, Cecily's fiancÃ©. They weren't aloneâsixteen total attendants were gathered at the front of the church, and that wasn't even counting the couple getting married or the priest.
The groomsmen had helped seat attendees, so Jack had escorted Kat to her seat. She'd worn a dark green A-line velvet dress that ended right below her knees. The scoop bodice hugged the tops of her breasts without being revealing, and the dress had cute cap sleeves. She'd bought it Wednesday night, wanting something different yet in the Christmas spirit.
“Isn't this wonderful?” an older woman seated next to her whispered as the music began and the wedding party came down the aisle.
“Yes,” Kat replied, turning her head to try to see through all the columns and down the long center aisle. At least she wasn't in one of the side sections.
Of the eight groomsmen, Jack came down the aisle fifth. He escorted a good friend of Cecily's, whom Kat had met last night after she'd watched this whole ritual being rehearsed. As Jack approached, a lump formed in Kat's throat. She'd seen him twice in a tux, but perhaps it was the magic of weddings, for he was more handsome, more desirable than ever. He searched her out, and as their gaze connected, he gave her a conspiratorial wink. Her heart jumped.
Then he stood up front, and she couldn't help but flush under his intense gaze. Then another groomsman crossed in front and then another, diverting Jack's attention.
She rose with the crowd when the bride arrived, sat back down as the ceremony began.
The wedding was gorgeous. Last night the priest had done a lot of “then we say vows and then you walk to the statute of Mary over there and â¦” and while people moved about, the Thursday night rehearsal hadn't held the enchanted quality of the actual service.
“Hey,” Jack said, coming back up the side aisle and entering her pew. She was the only person left, the relatives to her right having walked to the front so they could greet family and friends.
“Beautiful ceremony,” she said. They stepped out into the aisle.
“Long. Thought Cecily and Brian would never get that unity candle to light. Is it hot in here?” Jack tugged at his tie; she knew how much he hated them. She reached up, adjusted the black bow. “Thought they might burn the place down.”
Kat stifled a giggle and glanced furtively at the family members who stood nearby. Hopefully they hadn't overheard. “Shh. People are listening.”
He gave a nonchalant shrug and that little grin she liked, the one he often shot her as he traced her belly button with his fingertip. “Ah, I'm the black sheep. Nothing new. It'll just give them something else to talk about, keep the gossips happy.”
“Jack.” A petite white-haired woman gave him a big hug as she passed by.
“That's Aunt Rachel. We're going to have at least a half hour of photos, maybe more as my family takes forever. How about you meet me at the reception? I'll catch a ride with my parents.”
“I'd be the first one out the door if I could,” Jack admitted. “But Cecily would shoot me and my mother would stomp on my bullet-riddled carcass.”
Kat burst out laughing. Having met his mother, she agreed. “I just bet that's what would happen.”
“So, as I love both of them and value my life, I'm going to smile wide and keep my mouth shut.”
He leaned over, his exhale hot in her ear. “I also want to make love to you later tonight, and I need to be very alive for that.”
His voice caressed over her, and she gave an anticipatory shiver. “Sounds like a good plan then.”
“Definitely.” He touched her arm, creating the automatic tingles that filled her with longing. “Get going. I've already done all the groom shots, thank God.” He held out his car keys and tilted his head. “Besides, if you stay, my mom's going to try to put you in all the family photos.”
The keys warmed in her hand, and she tried to keep things light. “Reception sounds grand. Besides, there's wine there.”
“That there is. Lucky you.” Jack gave her a lingering kiss on the lips.
“You next down the aisle, Jack?” someone called. “This is a church you know. Show some respect or finally get the deed done yourself.”
He drew away, running a forefinger down her cheek. “There are moments I hate my family.”
“Well, don't kill that person,” Kat warned, trying to keep from laughing while at the same time willing her body not to react to his brief touch. All he had to do now was look at her and she'd ignite. “Your sister won't like it.”
“Jack! Photos!” someone called.
Jack exhaled and rolled his eyes. “See you in a few, or hopefully before I'm old and gray.”
“I'll have a beer waiting.”
He kissed her lips lightly before moving away. “You are definitely a goddess. An angel.”
“Don't you forget it,” Kat called after him, a soft, fuzzy feeling blooming. She put on her dress coat, then drove Jack's SUV less than five minutes away to the South Side institution called Hendri's. Kat stepped into the banquet hall and stopped short, as if frozen. She frowned, willing her feet to move. Was she glued down?
She turned her head, taking in the view before her. The room was perfect. Round eight-top tables covered with white tablecloths were interspersed between similarly covered rectangular tables that sat ten. Chairs were covered with solid-black fabric, complete with white bows on the back. White rose centerpieces with plaid bows sat on the center of each table. Hendri's even had a black-and-white diamond-patterned dance floor.
Her feet still didn't move. Then it hit her. She wanted this.
A wedding. A reception. A family.
She wanted it all.
She'd thought she'd have a happily-ever-after with her ex, Rick, but when she'd gone to vet school, they'd fallen apart in a brutal, self-esteem-killing way. So she'd buried this particular dream deep inside, for it was easier to ignore what you knew you couldn't have rather than try to find another way to get it.
People moved around her, and Kat realized she was blocking the middle of the doorway. She jolted into action, finding the name card that told her where she sat. She set her purse on her chair and noticed a small crowd gathered at the long, dark-wood bar. It reminded her of something she'd seen in Irish pub, or one of those familiar neighborhood places that have been around forever. Kat joined the queue as more revelers arrived.
“Riesling and a Bud,” she told the bartender, who with practiced efficiency filled a wineglass and handed her a longneck. Kat took a sip of wine as she stood there. St. Louis was the type of place where you'd always run into someone you knew. At a Blues game, she'd find herself on the one escalator where at the top she'd run into her college roommate's friend Jose, the arena's head of security. Walk into any restaurant, she'd often run into a client.
Tonight Kat didn't recognize a soul. So she did what every other single person does when faced with awkward circumstances: return to the table, pull out her cell phone, and check her Facebook status and e-mail.
Thankfully Jack arrived within a half hour; he dropped into the seat next to her, grabbed his still somewhat cold beer, and took a long swallow. “Needed this.”
“That answers how photos went.”
“If my mother wasn't in the photographs, she would have been taking them herself. As it is, she micromanaged that guy within an inch of his life. Speak of the devilâ¦” His voice trailed off as Joyce approached, and he stood and kissed her cheek. “Mom.”
With a nod at Jack, Joyce reached for Kat's hands. Her silvery beaded gown caught the light. “Kat! So good to see you again. Didn't you just love the wedding?” She gave Kat's hands a little squeeze.
“It was beautiful.” Kat pulled her hands back and put them in her lap. Joyce remained standing, so Kat tilted her head back.
“It was. I'm so glad you're here. Jack's seated over there.”
“I'd rather be over here.”
Joyce beamed. “Too bad. And you know what they say, absence makes the heart fonder.”
Jack groaned as his mother tugged his arm. “That's my cue.” He gave Kat a parting kiss. “Good luck.”
Kat found herself surrounded by some of the same people with whom she'd been placed in the church pew. Dinner was a buffet of roast beef, chicken marsala, rigatoni pasta with a choice of white or red sauces, mixed green salad, and a broccoli, cauliflower and carrot mix. Afterward came speeches, cake cutting, and finally the bride and groom's first dance.
Then Jack found Kat, sans bow tie, and told her, “I'm free.” He pulled her out onto the dance floor, where they showed off their moves until a slow song began. Then he drew her to him, her head resting on his chest. He smelled divine.
“I like having you in my arms,” Jack whispered.
“I like being here,” Kat said, snuggling closer as they swayed to the music for two songs. She fit in his arms like she'd been made for him. She'd never been so at ease or comfortable. Jack made her feel special. She just had to remember to take tomorrow one day at a time, as clichÃ© as that sounded.
They broke apart after the DJ told everyone it was time for the father/daughter dance. While everyone waited for Nelson and Cecily to take the floor, Kat headed for the bathroom; Jack went to the bar. “Just water,” she called. “Dehydrated.”
The room was empty when she entered, but as she was washing her hands a young woman approached and caught her eye through the mirror. Kat smiled at her because that's what you did at weddings.
“So you're the wedding date.”
Kat's smile faded slightly, but she didn't falter. “I am Jack's date,” she corrected, tone pleasant.
The woman turned her face, checking her makeup. Then she zeroed in on Kat again. “How long have you been dating?”
“Since the end of November,” Kat replied.
“Not very long at all.”
An uneasy feeling grew in the pit of Kat's stomach. “Long enough that he chose to bring me to this and the rehearsal.”
The platinum blond refreshed blood-red lipstick, her green gaze assessing. Her lips made an annoying pop as she pressed them together, puckered, and released. “Well, I hope you aren't hoping for a commitment. I went to two or three of these things with Jack and it didn't budge him an inch.” She redid her bottom lip with a swipe, a large diamond on her ring finger flashing. She made the annoying pop again. “Some men are like that.”
Kat bristled. “Like what? Wise?”
The blond had the audacity to laugh. “Oh honey,
“And I can reassure you he's grateful for that fact every day,” Kat replied, head high as she left the bathroom before she let her claws fully come out. She didn't get far before being cornered by Sharon, who winced as she saw the woman leave the bathroom a few seconds after Kat.