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I will be happy for Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Jack, I vowed, repeating the words like a mantra, as I drove toward the beach house where they were hosting their own silver anniversary party. That the party came complete with a renewal of vows ceremony only made me strengthen my own promise.
Usually, I avoided all things nuptial because they only provided painful reminders of my own failed marriage, but today wasn't about me. No matter how ugly my scars, I was determined not put a damper on my aunt and uncle's special day.
Lake Michigan winked out at me from between modest homes and mansions as I followed the winding road toward Bluffton Point Lighthouse. Even through the dusty windshield, the water appeared glassy smooth, its color deepening in stripes from sky blue to violet.
In the distance, the redbrick lighthouse stood majestically, peering down at its kingdom and offering protection to seasoned fishermen and novice recreational boaters alike.
The siren call of these surroundings, which lulled visitors into the slow-paced vacation mindset of Mantua, Michigan, helped to lift my moodor would have if I hadn't been so uncomfortably warm.
Brushing at the sweat trickling down my neck, I grumbled over my car's air-conditioning unit, which desperately needed a shot of refrigerant. If only I'd remembered to include that in my summer break budget, but as it was, I'd be sweating it out until school started the last week of August.
This was supposed to be the first week of June near one of the Great Lakes, not the South Atlantic. As I sat with the backs of my legs sticking to the upholstery, nothing could convince me that Michigan hadn't slipped south of the equator.
My cell phone picked that moment to cue up "Pop Goes the Weasel" and give me another reminder to read the owner's manual and learn how to change the ring. Pulling over on the shoulder of the road, I reached down for the phone in the passenger seat, flipped it open and pressed it to my ear.
"Cassie, sweetheart, is that you?, Eleanor Hudson nearly shouted into the receiver before I had the chance to say hello.
"Of course it's me, Aunt Eleanor. You called me, remember?"
"Watch yourself, missy. You know, you shouldn't be talking on your cell phone while you're driving."
I smiled for the first time all day. Dad had always said that even the Grinch couldn't stay in a bad mood around his sister. "Guess you don't know me as well as you think. I pulled over before picking up the phone, but I'm not getting there any faster by sitting here."
"Sorry, sweetie." Her cheery voice didn't sound all that apologetic. "I've got pre-wedding jitters. I need my favorite niece to help me get through it."
"I'm your only niece on both sides, right?"
"Well" What could only have been a middle-aged woman's giggle came through the line.
"Aunt Eleanor," I started again. "I don't know what you're worried about. Uncle Jack is still nuts about you, even after twenty-five years. Otherwise, how could you have convinced him to be a part of this off-the-wall vows renewal thing?"
The idea was wild, all right, with a ceremony right on the beach. How was that repeating history, anyway? The first time my aunt and uncle had spoken their vows, they'd been standing in a tiny country church outside Waterloo. There were pictures to prove it.
"I have ways of convincing him." With barely a pause, Eleanor asked, " When should we expect you? Princess is dying to meet you."
"I'm sure she is." Not that I was convinced that cats became excited about anything, let alone houseguests. I'd heard tales about Princess for the last few years, but this was the first time I would make her royal acquaintance. I wondered if my aunt would expect me to curtsy when I did.
"Everyone else is already here, too. The whole wedding party. Even" "Great." I cut her off before she could give a list of strangers" names. At this rate, I would never get there.
"I'm looking forward to it."
I hoped the last statement conveyed my enthusiasm for this time and for the couple I adored. My aunt and uncle had every right to expect me to be thrilled over their silver wedding anniversary. And I was.
On the other hand, this marriage renewal event didn't exactly give me the urge to turn cartwheels and shake pom-poms. The party would celebrate enduring love and commitment. My own experience of it had been as much a fallacy as it was fleeting. Hardly the stuff that dreams were made of.
Because this party felt like an in-your-face commentary on my failures, I had planned to arrive early and fade inconspicuously into the walls of my aunt and uncle's lake cottage. My stalling had messed up even those good intentions, and now everyone would think I had arrived fashionably late to make an entrance when all I wanted was an excuse for an exit.
After saying goodbye to Aunt Eleanor, I continued to follow her directions to the address on the invitation. When I thought I was there, I slowed the car, but I already knew it wasn't the right place. The sprawling, blond-brick structure had a huge entry arch, tons of windows and was probably insulated with bundles of cash.
I couldn't imagine my aunt and uncle moving to a place like this. Most of their marriage, they'd lived happily in a modest ranch house near Jackson.
Still, the numbers matched. Apparently, The Millionaire Next Door had nothing on my relatives.
Almost as soon as I pulled into the driveway, Eleanor leaned into the open driver's-side door and gave me a fierce hug. Chin-length hair that she kept its lovely champagne color by maintaining strict six-week touch-ups fluttered across my cheek. Her comforting warmth enveloped me, which felt strange at first, because I hadn't felt warm inside all year.
"Cassandra Eleanor." Like always, she used my first and middle names to remind anyone listening that I was her namesake.
"Hi, Aunt Eleanor," I said into her shoulder. "You said cottage, not mansion."
Her chest rumbled against me with her chuckle. "No, I believe I said house. Just wait until you see the view from the deck. God gave us front-row seats to every West Michigan sunset."
Kindly, my aunt didn't mention that I would have seen their view and met their precious Princess before if I'd visited any time since they'd moved in three summers before. I'd been far too busy messing up my own life to be involved in anyone else's.
Aunt Eleanor pulled back so I could stand up, but she didn't release me completely. I hoped she wouldn't because I might have been tempted to cling.
"you're a sight for sore eyes."
She had that right. I was a sight, and I probably made her eyes sore. I held my breath, waiting for her to comment on my weight, which was a good ten pounds below the one hundred twenty-five where I looked my best. But she didn't mention that or the raccoon eyes that my liquid concealer failed to hide.
Maybe mothers were the only ones who felt obliged to point out weight gains or losses, bad haircuts and unfortunate wardrobe choices. Funny, I missed even those things now that the death dates were filled in on both sides of Mom and Dad's joint headstone.
My only remaining blood relative on my father's side drew me into her arms, though now that I was standing, I had to bend at the waist to let her reach up to me.
"Well, Ellie, are you going to let the rest of us get a look at Cassie or not?"
Jack Hudson appeared beside his wife, wearing his familiar toothy grin under his graying mustache, plus a potbelly he'd further developed in the last few years. His hug was every bit as tight my aunt's as he spoke with a muffled voice into my rat's nest of blond hair. I should have known better than to leave the car window open if I didn't tie my hair back.
"You get prettier every day."
Today I knew that was a fib, though he'd said it to me dozens of times before. I could hear other voices, but I couldn't see past my uncle's sizable height and girth.
It was just as well since I wouldn't know any of these people I would be expected to remember, anyway. I didn't want to hear someone say, " Last time I saw you, you were this big," as they held their hands at about waist height. If I heard that, I might be tempted to spout off that the last time I saw them their hair wasn't so gray. That probably wouldn't earn me any Brownie points.
I especially didn't want to hear about how adorable I'd been in the pictures of the original wedding with the little ring bearerLucky or something. Since he wasn't related to either the bride or the groom and wouldn't feel obligated to attend this cutesy event, I probably wouldn't have to pretend to know him at all.
Though I wished I could remember for Aunt Eleanor's sake, I could recall only a few fuzzy details of the day I pranced down the aisle as her flower girl. If only my memory could be as blissfully vague over my own fiasco of a wedding and marriage.
"Let her breathe, Jack. I'm about to get jealous." My uncle's laughter boomed at that. "And well you should. She's not little Miss Cassie Blake anymore."
And never would be again, I was tempted to announce as my uncle stepped back to reveal a sea of smiling faces. My name wouldn't even be Blake if I hadn't asked for it back while negotiating for my car and grandma's piano in the divorce.
I could no more picture this Cassandra Whittinger this Mrs. Alan Whittingerthan I could see myself as that little blond darling with ringlet curls who had worn a periwinkle taffeta dress with crinolines to the wedding. I was no longer that nearly five-year-old girl who had mimicked the bride and groom by sharing a buttercream-icing-flavored kiss with the ring bearer under the table. I was just weeks away from my thirtieth birthday, and I felt even older than that.
"Cassie, dear, are you paying attention?"
"Hmm?, I turned back to my aunt's softly rounded image. Like her husband, Aunt Eleanor had blossomed a bit since her big day as the blushing bride. "I'm sorry. What were you saying?"
Aunt Eleanor came forward and rested both warm hands on my forearms. "Sweetie, you look exhausted after such a long drive.We can wait until after you've rested for you to become reacquainted with everyone else."
She made it sound as if I'd passed through three time zones and required a passport for my journey from Toledo, but I nodded anyway, grateful for the reprieve. Maybe I could get through this weekend after all. Just a few days of smiling, and it all would be over. I could do that.
The sacrifices were small for the reward at the end: three weeks of solitude at my aunt and uncle's cottage-slashmansionslashhouse. Well, near solitude anyway. Princess would be there, too, but she was probably one of those aloof cats that wouldn't notice I was around as long as I kept food in her bowl. How hard could it be?
Anyway, I knew full well that Aunt Eleanor had asked me to cat-sit when she could just as easily have asked a neighbor to pull cat duty. I recognized emotional charity when I heard it, yet I was in no position to turn it down. Nearly two years had passed since the divorce, and I was still in get-through-the-day mode.
What I needed was a break in the routine, and a few weeks on Michigan's incredible west coast might be just the ticket. I would sink my toes in the sand and wait for the sun to draw the highlights out in my hair. I would let the water and a dozen or so of the sunsets my aunt had promised lull me out of the lethargy that had become my life. Maybe surrounded by God's creation, I would even be inspired to pray a little again.