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Velma Brighton zipped up the mauve-colored, strapless silk-and-lace gown, fastened a strand of eight-millimeter pearls at her neck, and forced herself to look in the floor-length mirror that leaned against the wall. Grimacing at the sight of her more than amply rounded figure in the fitted gown, she cringed with embarrassment.
"Now, he'll know what I really look like," she said to herself, lamenting the fact that she couldn't wear her usual caftan and wishing that she was tall and slender. As she stared at the mirror, she saw not only her own likeness, but a reflection of the groves of snow and icicle-laden trees on the north side of Harrington House that created an idyllic dream world. For a better look, she walked over to the window of the guest room she occupied and fixed her gaze on the broad expanse of snow-covered beauty, shaking her head in wonder at the sunlight dancing against the icicles. No bride could ask for a more beautiful wedding day.
This was her fifth or sixth visit to Harrington House, an enormous red-brick colonial set off by a great circular driveway, dominating John Brown Drive in Eagle Park, Maryland. She first visited it in order to be with her sister, Alexis, but on each subsequent trip to visit her sister, her heart had fluttered wildly in her eagerness to see Russ Harrington again. And though he always welcomed her, often being especially attentive, she didn't think she'd made much headway with him.
She checked her hair and make-up and went downstairs to the rooms her sister occupied with her five-year-old daughter, Tara.
"How do I look, Aunt Velma?" Tara asked the minute Velma walked into the room.
"Beautiful. You'll be the perfect flower girl."
Smiles enveloped Tara's face. "My mummy said I looked, uh spec spec what, Mummy?"
Velma regarded her sistertall, willowy and beautiful in the ivory-colored silk-satin-and-lace wedding gown. "I was a little surprise when you said you'd wear white, but I'm glad you did."
"Telford asked if I wouldhe wanted a traditional wedding. I wasn't going to deny him because of a foolish convention that a divorced or widowed woman shouldn't wear white at a subsequent marriage. Brides wore white traditionally because they were virgins. Honey, that was then. Telford's never been married, and he deserves a good old-fashioned wedding if that's to his liking."
"You're the most beautiful woman I ever saw," Velma said. "Just wait till Telford sees you. The poor man's heart will jump right out of his chest."
"I certainly hope not," Alexis said, adjusting her tiara. "I haven't seen him since last night, and it seems like years."
"You're not supposed to see the groom on your wedding day until you meet him at the altar. You know that."
"I do know it. I just wish I could see him. Velma, I can't believe this is happening to me. I'm.I'm so happy. If I'm not careful, I'll bawl."
"You won't. It's not your style." She reached up to Alexis with open arms. "I'm happy for you, sis. After all you suffered with Jack, you deserve this wonderful man. Turn around and let me fasten these buttons. I never could figure out why they put these tiny things on the back of a wedding dress, unless it's to frustrate the groom when he tries to get the gown off the bride."
She loved Alexis's low, sultry laugh when she said, "I hope to have him in such a state that he'll rip 'em off."
Velma stopped her task and wondered aloud, "Would he do that? Good Lord, how exciting! I would never have believed him capable of it."
"Can't judge a book by its cover, hon, nor a man by his height. And that's gospel. Seen Russ today?"
Velma shrugged as if didn't matter, but it did. "Not since last night. If he ate breakfast, he did it before I went downstairs. That man is an enigma. Last night, he laughed, joked and teased with me, and this morning, he acted as if I wasn't in the house."
Alexis placed a hand on her sister's arm. "Understanding Russ may prove to be a full-time job, Velma. He's tough and sometimes he seems cynical, but dig deeper. He's loving, caring and if he tells you he'll do something, he does it."
"I believe that, but"
In the act of inspecting the long white leather gloves she planned to wear, Alexis stopped, threw them on the bed and stared at her older sister. "I want you to listen to me. No buts. Russ is straight. What you see is exactly what you get. Don't bother to look for hidden meanings either in his words or his actions. There won't be any. What you see is exactly what you get."
"Not many people are like that. I guess he's too ornery to be dishonest."
"No," Alexis said. "Russ is too self-assured to lie or to be devious. Pay attention to him if you want him, otherwise forget it. When it comes to Russ, those notions about how to get a man aren't worth the mental energy required to remember them."
"I know he's special," Velma said. She finished buttoning the dress, checked its hem and train. Her happiness for her sister was boundless, but she couldn't help wishing for Alexis's beauty, her flawless figure and her self-confidence.
"I've been a bridesmaid half a dozen times," Velma said, "each of which was increasingly painful for me. This is the last time I'm doing it. It hurts too badly."
"Aunt Velma, has Grant come yet?" Tara asked of Grant Roundtree, her friend and the son of Adam Roundtree and Melissa Grant-Roundtree.
"I didn't see him, but don't worryit's a bit too early for the Roundtrees."
"My mummy said he's the ring bearer. Can Mr. Telford and my mummy get married if Grant doesn't bring the rings?"
"He'll be there," Alexis said. "Anyway, we can get married without rings, although I wouldn't like to. But relax. Grant will be here on time."
"Yes, ma'am. You already told me to relax four times. How do I do it?"
"Excuse me for a few minutes," Velma said, and made her way down the corridor toward the stairs.
"Well, now don't you look real special?" Henry said as he met her near the bottom of the stairs.
"Thanks, Henry. What about you? You look great. With that tux on, you could snare a princess."
"Yeah? If I believed you, I'd get out of this monkey suit fast as I could."
"Did er re" Velma began tentatively, so that Henry wouldn't think her question important.
He second guessed her anyway. "The boys ate breakfast in town this morning. Drake and Russ had to keep a lid on Tel. Never saw anybody so shook up about getting married as Alexis and Tel." With an expression of reverence, he glanced toward the ceiling, then smiled, a rarity for him. "They're meant for each other sure as my name is Henry Wooten."
Velma started up the stairs. "What are you going up there for?" he asked her. "Ain't gonna be nobody up there but you. Stop worrying about him. Can't nobody second-guess Russ."
"I'm not worrying about him."
"You are so, and he won't appreciate it. You listen to what I say. You hear?"
First Alexis and now Henry lectured her on how to deal with Russ. Life didn't revolve around that man; not so far, anyway. "Thanks, Henry. I'll uh see you later."
Inside her room, she closed the door and, for a minute, had an urge to lock it. Fighting back moroseness, she admonished herself sharply.
It's her day, so put a smile on your face and grin if it kills you. For years, you've gone alone to the movies, theaters and concerts. You're used to it, girl, used to having no one to hold you when you hurt, no one to love you when you can't stand being alone. Nothing has changed. Not one damned thing.
No. Everything remained as it had been. Except the joy, the happiness Alexis radiated when she mentioned Telford's name. She wanted that joy, that happiness, that knowledge that she belonged to a man who belonged to her.
"I gotta snap out of this," she told herself as she got a small lavender-colored handkerchief and folded it into the palm of her left hand. She dabbed some Hermes perfume behind her ears and at her wrists, inhaled its elegant scent and went back to Alexis and Tara. She entered the room as Alexis picked up the telephone receiver.
"Hello. Alexis speaking."
"Hello, sweetheart. Russ, Drake and I are leaving for the church. The stretched-out white Lincoln Town Car out front is for you, Velma, Henry and Tara. The Roundtrees will meet us at the church. Can you believe that in an hour and a half you'll be my wife? Baby, I can't wait."
"Me, neither. Drive carefully."
"Russ is driving, and you know he wouldn't consider breaking the speed limit."
Alexis treated him to a deep, throaty laugh, a happy laugh. "I know. Tell him I said he's carrying precious cargo, so he shouldn't go beyond sixty."
"I'll tell him that, for all the good it'll do. I love you, woman. See you."
"And I love you."
Velma listened to that side of the conversation and couldn't do one thing about the ache that settled inside of her. An ache that would vanish for all time if she had Russell Harrington and three children who looked just like him.
Henry met them at the front door, handed a bouquet of mauve and pink calla lilies to Velma and a bouquet of white ones to Alexis. "From Tel and Russ. You can figure out who sent what to whom," he said, and added: "Thank you, Alexis, for the honor of letting me escort you and give you to Tel. You're my daughter now, and it'll be the proudest moment of my life."
An hour and a half later, bells of the Eagle Park Presbyterian Church in Eagle Park, Maryland, began to peal, and Velma stepped behind Alexis, straightened the train of her dress, adjusted Tara's mauve-pink hat and Grant's bow tie, kissed her sister's cheek and headed toward the altar.
Walking up the aisle that was banked on both sides with white calla lilies, she knew her face was devoid of emotion, reflecting neither her happiness for her sister nor the loneliness that was her interminable visitor. She took her place at the altar, made almost surrealistically beautiful and magical with dozens of lighted white candles, white calla lilies and white rosebuds. When she could no longer avoid it, she let her gaze find Russ who, as Telford's older brother, served as best man. Drake served as groom.
She knew Russ heard her audible gasp, for a slow-moving smile formed around his mouth seconds before he greeted her. Granted it was a solemn occasion, but there was no need to behave as if they were in a morgue. Her composure once more in order, she let the smile that came from her heart light up her face.
To her, Russ stood out among men, tall, tough and handsome, but in that black tuxedo and mauve-colored accessoriesthe uniform for every male in the wedding party, including Granthe took her breath away. Although he stood with his brothers, themselves imposing men by any standard, she barely looked at them. And when Russ caught her ogling him and winked at her, she lowered her gaze in embarrassment.
Russ shifted his glance from her face to a spot somewhere below her left elbow. She looked down and realized he wanted her to know that Tara and Grant stood beside her solemnly holding hands. She heard the tune, "Here Comes the Bride," held her head up and smiled at Telford, for her heart seemed to overflow with joy.
"Who gives this woman to be wed?" the minister asked.
Henry's voice, strong and not quite steady, replied, "I do." He kissed Alexis, placed her hand in Telford's and took his seat beside Adam Roundtree.
Velma watched Telford and her sister exchange their vows, speaking directly to each other and looking at each other as if they were alone. She realized that in their hearts, they were alone. The minister asked for the rings so that he could bless them, and Grant released Tara's hand, walked up to the minister and said, "Here they are, sir."
Velma's eyebrows shot up. She forced back a grin, took pains to avoid looking at any of the adults who stood around the altar, for no one told Grant to say that. Yet, it seemed so appropriate. He stepped back to Tara, reached for her hand and held it. Finally, the minister pronounced Telford and Alexis husband and wife. They enfolded each other in a joyous embrace as they laughed, hugged and cried.
As if she didn't want to be left out, Tara tapped on Telford's leg. He looked down at her, grinned, and lifted her into his arms to the applause of the wedding guests.
"Is this what you meant by 'working it out,' Mr. Telford?"
He hugged her. "This is exactly what I meant."
"And we can be together now, you and Mummy and me?"
"Yes. That's what it means."
Her arms tightened around Telford's neck, then she kissed his cheek. "I have to tell Grant I was right." He set her on her feet, and she went back to Grant who immediately reached for her hand. With Tara and Grant walking ahead of them, the bride and groom smiled and waved to their guests as they walked away from the altar. Her eyes glittering with tears of happiness, Velma looked up into Russ Harrington's face as he held out his arm to her, his smile as radiant as she knew her own had to be. She nearly tripped, but he tightened his grip.
"It was the most moving thing I've ever experienced," he said in low tones. "I'm happy for them."
"I am, too. It was I can't describe it." She said silent thanks that he didn't see her face, for she knew that all she felthappiness, pain and lonelinesswere mirrored in her eyes.
I'll be back on track as soon as I can get away from Eagle Park and this man whose arm I'm holding. I don't want his casual friendship. I want him.
Russ held the door of his car, seated Velma in the front passenger's seat, and left Henry and Drake to make themselves comfortable in the back. Tara and Grant rode with the bride and groom.
"You want to offer the first toast, Drake?" Russ asked as he moved the Mercedes away from the curb and headed for the reception.
"That's your job, brother," Drake said. "I'll do the honors when you tie the knot."
"If that ever happens," Henry put in. "You both shoulda seen how happy Tel is. Now maybe you'll figure out how to get some of that happiness for yourselves."
"Don't bring that up, Henry," Drake said. "I'm not interested in walking the remainder of the way to the reception."
"Would he put us out?" Velma asked with a tone of wonder in her voice.
"Maybe not you. I'm taking no chances," Drake said.