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Two years ago
Weddings gave her the heebie-jeebies.
Patriarchal rules wearing the pretty mask of traditions and ancient promises that were rarely kept? Definitely not her thing.
A wedding night might be nice, all things considered. Champagne and rose-petal-strewn sex with a man who'd just promised to worship you forever? Not a completely horrible idea.
But to sign your life away to get it? To the same man, day in and day out, 'til death do you part?
Sage Taylor gave a delicate shudder.
She'd rather wear a three-piece suit and give lectures to businessmen on the merits of climbing the corporate ladder through backstabbing, undercutting and sexual favors. Or maybe be staked to an anthill naked while covered in hot fudge.
The only celebrating she wanted that included champagne and rose-petal-strewn sex would come-no pun intended-when she found a guy who could keep it up long enough to worship her until she melted. And who needed forever for that? All she needed was one good night.
Or maybe a weekend.
"What'd you think of the wedding, dear?"
Even though she was pretty sure Mrs. O'Brian couldn't see the naked all-night-sex images playing out in her imagination, Sage still winced.
"It's lovely," Sage said, leaning down so the elderly woman could brush a parchment-dry kiss over her cheek. Not a lie. She'd never lie, especially not to the woman who'd taught her to read. But lovely was one of those nice, safe statements that could cover so many things.
Like the weather, with its bright sunshine and cool breeze. Just right for a springtime wedding in a winery.
Or the bride, one of Sage's oldest and dearest friends, who looked so happy she glowed almost as bright as the sunshine.
Or the wine, Sage noted, taking a sip from the glass a passing waiter handed her.
"You made a lovely bridesmaid," Mrs. O'Brian noted, holding her own wineglass up to peer at it with a connoisseur's eye. "I'm sure your father was thrilled to see you at the altar. Any chance you'll be there again soon? Perhaps wearing white?"
"Me? White?" Sage wet her lips, nerves dancing in her stomach. The soft green satin of her bridesmaid dress was as close to wedding accoutrement as she wanted to get. And pretty much as close to wearing white as she warranted. But that wasn't the kind of thing you told a seventy-year-old woman at her niece's wedding. "Um, well "
"Sage? AnaMaria wants more pictures," Nina Wagner said, tucking her arm through Sage's. The other bridesmaid looked the part much better than Sage ever could. Of course, with her sleek black hair and model looks, Nina was at home in the strapless satin sheath in a way that Sage, with her dreadlocks and multiple piercings, could never appear.
"Ahh, pictures," Mrs. O'Brian said with a wave of her hand. "Go, go. Smile pretty, girls."
Sage went, went, as fast as she could move in the foot-pinching stilettos.
"You looked scared," Nina said, laughing as she pulled Sage across the room toward the buffet.
"She thinks I should be getting married," Sage said, shivering at the thought.
"That is scary." Her arm still tucked tight through her best friend's, Nina laughed even as she scanned the crowd, scoping out the possibilities. Probably looking for a groom of her own.
At her friend's low hum of appreciation, Sage followed her gaze across the room.
As usual, Nina had scoped out the best-looking guy in attendance.
Chief Petty Officer Aiden Masters. Otherwise known as the geeky guy Sage had grown up with.
A protégé of her father's, Aiden was chronologically three years Sage's senior, and mentally thirty years older. But growing up he'd been a social infant compared to her natural ease with people. So while her father had nurtured his mind, she'd figured it her job to keep him from becoming a stodgy old man before he was seventeen. Clearly, from his ease at moving through the crowd, she'd done her job well.
It wasn't just that he was one of the tallest guys there. Or that the contrast of his short black hair and hazel eyes stood out against the vivid white of his military uniform. It was that Aiden Masters was hot.
Under that uniform was a body that sent women into fantasy mode. Fantasies that, for some bizarre reason, most of them seemed to want to share with Sage. Worse, though, was when one of them managed to make their Aiden fantasy into reality. They liked to share that, too.
Sage was all for reaping the kudos on a job well done, but hearing about Aiden and other women tended to make her teeth hurt.
And the idea of Aiden and Nina?
Their energies wouldn't match, nor did their personalities. For all her matrimonial goals, Nina was the eat-'em-up-and-toss-them-aside type. And Aiden, well, he might be a navy SEAL, but he still needed protection from some things.
"Aren't we supposed to be joining AnaMaria for pictures?" Sage asked, turning her head toward the bride and groom who were posing under a grapevine arbor across the lawn.
"I just said that to rescue you. Have you already forgotten the cheesy chorus of photos that were taken before the ceremony?"
"How could I?" Happy to have distracted her friend, Sage made a show of grimacing and patting her cheeks to see if they'd recovered from all that smiling yet. She glanced over her shoulder at Mrs. O'Brian. The elderly woman was now in deep conversation with a group of people, giving their wine the same assessing looks, definitely not checking to see if Sage was really getting pictures taken. Still, Sage hated lying. Even little lies, since they were like snowflakes. Put enough of them together and they snowballed. And usually hit you splat in the face when you were least prepared.
As if hearing her thoughts, Nina rolled her eyes, pulled her cell phone out of the tiny purple purse hanging from her shoulder and wrapped her arm around Sage's waist. Heads together, they smiled pretty and Nina snapped the shot.
"There. You had your picture taken. Now can we get on to the good stuff?"
And this, Sage realized, was what she'd missed about being home. Three months hiking through Tibet was awesome. She'd worked with a charitable organization focused on bringing health care to the women there and had been so touched, she'd written daily blog posts on her website, Sage Advice, that she'd later sold as a series of articles to three magazines to pay for her trip home.
But as great as that'd been, nothing could beat good friends who knew you inside out and had a history that went back to kindergarten.
"What's the good stuff?" Sage asked, still smiling as she inspected the buffet. As to be expected for a Northern California winery wedding, the tables were heavy with appetizers of local produce, cheeses and gourmet delicacies.
"Your love life, of course," Cailley Heath, the third bridesmaid said as she joined them, choosing a juicy red strawberry off the fruit bouquet shaped like a heart. "I want to hear all about sex in Tibet."
"Shhh," Nina hushed. When both Sage and Cailley gave her confused looks, she tilted her head toward the nearby table where two men were sitting, their heads together in serious discussion. Ahh, Aiden had found his other half.
He and Sage's father tended to become inseparable whenever Sailor Boy was on leave. Discussing the latest theory in quantum physics or evidence of an ancient tribe that'd been discovered in a far-off jungle, no doubt.
Sage snickered, then teasingly shook her head at Nina.
She could have danced naked with every man in the room right there on their table, and they wouldn't have noticed.
"What?" she teased. "You think my father has no idea I have sex?"
Not that it was a topic of regular discussion. Typical of the Professor, when it was time for the birds-and-bees talk, her widowed father had a local nurse chat with Sage, filling her in on all of the pertinent details.
After which her friends had filled her in on the juicy ones.
"Your dad might know you have sex," Cailley teased.
"But does Aiden?"
"I'm sure he does," Sage said with an exasperated roll of her eyes, pretending the words her, Aiden and sex in the same sentence didn't send a naughty thrill to all the wrong places. "The real question is, why would he care?"
"I dunno. The way he looks at you sometimes is pretty intense," Cailley said, her tone turning serious enough to make Sage twitchy. She shrugged it off, though. Aiden didn't look at her as anything other than a friend. A flaky, weird friend whose father was his mentor.
"He always looks intense. That's just Aiden," Sage said dismissively, focusing on the buffet instead. With all the choices, she wanted to try a little of everything here. Which would be much more satisfying than talking about a guy who even found ways to straighten the straight and narrow.
"Just as well," Nina replied, filling her own plate with salad, no dressing. "A sexy SEAL might be fun for a fling, but he'd definitely be a bad idea for the long term. I want a guy who'll be around all the time. Ready and willing to fulfill my every wish."
Sage laughed, but Cailley gave a dissatisfied grunt.
"You've always known exactly what you want," the blonde said with a heavy sigh.
True. While Sage had no idea what she wanted, and bounced from idea to idea, first in her one-year attempt at college, then later in her varied and sundry jobs throughout the country.
But Nina was totally focused on exactly what she wanted. After graduation, it'd been to get into UC Davis. After college, it'd been to get a job as a viticulture researcher at the local winery. And now, at twenty-five they all knew getting married was next up on Nina's schedule.
"You know what you want," Nina said in a soothing tone.
"I don't think move out of my mom's apartment and find a job that pays enough to cover my student loans is exactly knowing what I want," Cailley said, her lower lip shifting into a pout.
Poor Cailley. Unlike Sage, who was happy to move on to the next job when one didn't fit, Cailley was desperately trying to find that perfect match.
"Hey, I met this guy last week who used to work as a headhunter for a big corporation," Nina said, snapping her fingers. "He's got lots of training in career counseling. You should talk with him."
Her pout forgotten, Cailley gave an excited yes.
"How about you, Sage? Did you want to talk to him while you're home, too?" Nina offered tentatively.
"A career counselor? No, but thanks," Sage refused with a laugh, taking her filled plate to a small table and settling in to enjoy the meal.
"You really should. If you don't, you'll just keep bouncing around, not getting ahead."
"I'm fine with that. There is so much out there to see and do and explore." The possibilities were endless. She wanted to find something that touched her soul. That made her spirit sing. All she had to do was keep looking until she found it. "Why dismiss any of the possibilities until I've tried them all?"
"Is that what you say about the guys?" Nina joked.
"Only until she finds the right guy," Cailley tossed in. "As soon as that happens, Sage will settle down fast."
Settle down? As in, quit searching for her bliss? Live in one place, for the rest of her life? Do the same thing day in and day out?
Sage shuddered. If that wasn't incentive to avoid that particular guy, she didn't know what was.
One year ago
"Seriously? A twenties-themed wedding?" Sage adjusted her headband, which kept trying to slide over her forehead, making her look like a drunken goth-style flapper. At least her bridesmaid dress was black, the beads glinting in the candlelight to match the blue tips of her razor-cut black hair. "What was Cailley thinking?"
"Well, Eric proposed at that Johnny Depp gangster movie, so they thought it'd be a fun, romantic way to commemorate it," AnaMaria said, looking much more suited to the flapper theme with her cute red curls and matching lipstick. "You missed all the pre-wedding fun though. They had a Bonnie-and-Clyde-style picnic, complete with vintage cars and barbecue yesterday."
"I feel horrible about that, too," Sage said with a grimace. "I'd have loved to see the cars. My dad was talking about it all the way from the airport this morning."
She didn't want to admit that she'd barely made it for the wedding at all. Dave, her boyfriend until last week, had hocked her original plane ticket that would have gotten here a week ago. She'd found out the night before her flight was due to leave, then had had to work overtime at the coffee bar all week, call in a few favors and borrow against her next paycheck to replace it. She'd covered the last-minute fare difference by selling Dave's drum set.
She'd thought she wanted a guy who needed her. That maybe being a part of helping him find his passion was her way to bliss. But there wasn't much bliss to be found in giving a wannabe diva a free ride.
"So what's the deal?" AnaMaria asked quietly after a few seconds.
"Deal?" Sage prevaricated. Sharing the fact that she'd just ended yet another unfulfillingly deadend, soul-dimming relationship wasn't her idea of wedding fun.
"Yeah. The deal. Just a month ago you were talking about how fun this visit was going to be. Two weeks ago, in between your call for donations to the animal shelter, you blogged about introducing the boyfriend to your friends. So where's the hot rock-star boyfriend? Why weren't you here a week ago? And why do you look so bummed?" Clearly out of breath, but not questions, AnaMaria filled her lungs and looked like she was going to keeping going.
Sage held up one hand before the other woman said anything else and shook her head. This was a sitting-down sort of conversation, so she glanced around.
"Let's chill," she suggested, waving her hand to indicate one of the small tables in the corner.
"I don't think the Seattle scene is really me," she admitted when they were settled. She ran her fingers over the smooth satin tablecloth, letting the fabric cool her stress. "I thought I wanted something intense, you know. The rock scene, music, the passion of it. But I'm not finding what I need there."
"Dave wasn't passionate enough?" AnaMaria asked, scooting her chair closer and leaning her head in, making it clear that she was ready to hear any and all naughty details.
And oh, the details they were. Sage pressed her lips together, then shrugged. Why not? She hadn't come away with much from the relationship, she might as well have fun now.
"He was passionate about his music. So much so that he could only get it up if his tunes were playing in the background," she dished, leaning close to offer a wicked smile and a wriggle of her brows. "And mirrors. He liked doing it in front of mirrors."
AnaMaria's mouth rounded into an O.
"Well, that's kinda sexy, right?" the redhead asked, her cheeks as bright as her hair now. "At least, I've heard it is."
It was all Sage could do not to hug her close. For a woman married well over a year to a pretty hot cop, AnaMaria was awfully sheltered.