Is there anything more romantic than a wedding on a deck overlooking the
Pacific Ocean at sunset? Not in my book. But there were things that kept today from making the top of my “best days ever” list.
First, it wasn’t my wedding. I was the maid of honor, holding the bouquet while vows were exchanged.
Second, by some cruel twist of fate, the ceremony was between my best friend and Ryan McAllister’s best friend, involving both Ryan and I in the official wedding party. We had been going at each other’s throats since we’d shared a sandbox. Funny thing is, I can’t explain why. It’d started when he’d dumped a bucket of funky-smelling mud over my head and ruined my pink polka-dot sun dress. I exacted revenge by not inviting him to my birthday party that year. Twenty years later, we still do whatever we can to aggravate one another. Old habits die hard, I guess.
As Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Morietti shared their first kiss as husband and wife, I felt a tear trickle down my cheek. I knew if Ryan saw me, he’d roll his eyes. He loved nothing better than to tease me whenever I showed the slightest bit of emotion, be it in response to a sad movie or a Kleenex commercial. But witnessing Drew and Danielle promise their lives to each other, I couldn’t help myself. I’d never known two people more suited. Was it too much for me to hope to find a love so complete and consuming?
My gaze skipped from the bride and groom to Ryan, standing opposite me as we attendants formed a semi-circle around the make-shift altar. My stomach did that annoying flip-flop, as it does every time I see him. I hate it when that happens, but he is just the most dazzling man on earth. And that’s when he’s dressed in faded jeans and golf shirt. This evening he wore a shiny black tuxedo with pearlescent white shirt and a dark green bowtie that matched my dress. I watched him as he watched the bride and groom. Certainly the wistful look in his eyes was a trick of the sun glinting off the ocean.
His gaze lifted and caught mine.
My stomach took the express elevator down to my feet. I’d always dreamed a man would look at me like that, with desire and longing and you-are-my-reason-for-living look in his eyes. But I knew Ryan too well. He was teasing me again, mocking my wedding-day sentimentalities.
The first notes of Ode to Joy rang out, courtesy of the United Methodist Church Bell Choir, and the congregation rose to their feet as the happy couple made their way, arm in arm, down the aisle. Willing my legs to cooperate, I stepped forward and slipped my hand into the crook of Ryan’s proffered elbow, preparing to make my own exit. Twenty more steps and this whole ordeal would be over. I can make it, I thought to myself. And I would have, too, if Ryan hadn’t flexed his bicep. Underneath the smooth fabric I felt the restrained energy and power of a stallion.
I, on the other hand, felt as powerless as a seagull flying into a stiff wind.
With all my attention focused on pretending I wasn’t affected by Ryan, I failed to concentrate on balancing on the four-inch high heels Danielle had insisted we have dyed to match our dresses. I stumbled. Ryan’s arm snaked around my waist and steadied me. I paused for a moment to regain my balance, and found myself wrapped in Ryan’s arms. We stood in the middle of the aisle, the warmth of his body seeping into mine, his wintergreen breath whispering across my cheek. I was aware of two-hundred pairs of eyes watching us, of the recessional backing up behind us as we blocked the aisle, of the music swelling as if to urge us on our way. But all that faded away until it was Ryan and me alone in the world. I looked up at his face.
It felt like hot-pepper jelly flowing through my veins in response to the way Ryan’s cerulean-blue eyes bore into my soul. My reactions scared the living daylights out of me. You don’t like this man, I reminded myself. You never have, and never will.
You may not like him, but you do love him. The reality hit me like a wrecking ball to the gut. I’d loved this kind, generous, hard-working, fun-loving and handsome man since the sandbox incident of 1985.
Ryan looked down at me, a slow sexy smile spreading across his face, and said, “You look like a pickle in that dress.”
I shoved my bouquet into his hands and hitched up the layers of my taffeta dress. It took two steps for me to realize my high-heels were not made for running, so I kicked them off and sped down the aisle. I flew across the cool marble floor of the ballroom as if the devil himself were on my heels. In a figurative sense, he was.
“Toriana! Get back here!” I heard Danielle shout as I wrestled my way through the heavy glass door and out onto the side deck and into the twilight. “You’re supposed to be in the receiving line!”
“I’ll get her,” I heard Ryan say.
I took the plank steps, two at a time, down three flights, zigzagging back and forth. When my bare feet hit the cool evening sand, I pushed my legs into overdrive and headed at top speed towards the crashing waves.
Before I hit the edge of the surf, I felt strong arms wrap around me from behind. They pulled me up until my legs flew in the air, and I was spun around, away from the waves, and carried further up in the sand.
I tried to break free, but the harder I struggled, the tighter the grip became until it got to the point I couldn’t breathe. I stopped and gave into the tears spawned by a heart broken completely in two.
“Are you okay?” Ryan’s voice was a mere whisper against my ear. The concern in his voice was more than I could bear.
The floodgates opened and tears flowed, down my cheeks and into my mouth, tasting salty and bitter.
Ryan’s grip relaxed and I sank into the sand. He dropped down next to me, so close I could detect the tangy scent of his aftershave. Normally I found the aroma interesting. Tonight, I found it intoxicating.
We sat in silence, me huffing and sniffling and battling the repercussions of my life-changing revelation, and he sifting sand through his hands as if he hadn’t a care in the world. The sun disappeared over the horizon, the surf kept up its crawl toward my feet, and lovers strolled hand in hand passed us. Life went on as before, for everyone but me.
Ryan broke the silence. “I honestly don’t know what I did to make you cry, Tori, but whatever it was, I’m sorry.”
How to explain to him that it wasn’t something he did, but something he didn’t do? He didn’t love me. In fact, just last night he’d told me he tolerated my presence the way one would a pesky little sister.
“You know how much I love pickles and all…” His voice trailed off and I watched his long fingers patted a pile of sand into a little mound. The hands of man playing like a child. “That didn’t come out right either. It’s just, well, I have something to tell you, but I don’t know how.”
My gaze wandered to his face. Bathed in the light of a lover’s moon he looked so serious. So sad. So confused.
I did what I’d wanted to do for years—I reached out and ruffled his dark curls. “Come one. We’ve been worst friends since kindergarten. Certainly you can tell me just about anything.”
“I love you.”
My hand stilled. Spoken so softly, I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly.
Ryan’s head swiveled until our gazes locked. He cleared his voice. “I said, I love you. I have loved you for as long as I can remember. I didn’t think you returned my feelings. But at the church, the way you were looking at me, it gave me hope…”
The ocean continued crashing against the shore as if nothing had changed, when, in fact, nothing would ever be the same. “I love you too, Ryan.” I wrapped a curl around my finger. “I have for forever. I just didn’t know it until tonight.”
He lowered his mouth. I met him halfway. His kiss was soft and sweet, and full of promises of forever-and-ever-amen love.
I whimpered as Ryan eased his lips away. Resting his forehead against mine, his hand cupped my neck as he whispered, “We’ve got forever to be alone. But tonight we need to get back to the Morietti’s reception. I promised our best friends I’d bring back their runaway bridesmaid.”