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Ruby Lockhart rose early the day after Christmas. Her to do list resembled Santa's naughty-and-nice list. Unlike him, though, her work was just beginning.
She stretched as she got out of bed and braced herself for the day. In a few hours, her sister Opal's life would be forever changed. Little did she know, hers would be, too.
Yesterday's Christmas celebration had been memorable, with her sisters and the men they loved exchanging gifts and enjoying camaraderie after the festive meal that she'd spent two days preparing. As the elder sister of Opal, Pearl and Amber, Ruby hosted the holidays, a habit they'd cultivated after the loss of their mother five years ago. As tired as she had been last night, Ruby hadn't slept soundly. Last-minute details for the wedding occupied her mind throughout the night. Some would call her a control freak. She preferred to say she was proactive, doing her part to prevent any hitches.
She took the royal-blue jacket dress that she'd bought for the wedding out of the closet in her bedroomthe same room in which her parents had sleptand hung it on the back of the door. Amber, her youngest sister, always said she should avoid all shades of blue, because it didn't flatter her dark skin, but Ruby didn't care; she loved blue. Besides, people seemed to pay more attention to her light-brown, almond-shaped eyes than to her clothes or anything else about her.
She tried on the dress to be sure that the hem reached the top of her shoes, never a certainty at her height of her five feet, nine inches. Satisfied with the dress's fit on her trim, size-twelve figure, she called the bride-to-be and announced, "I'll be over in a couple of hours to checkyour dress."
"Thanks, but you needn't hurry. Pearl is here with me. Is Luther back yet? It's too bad he couldn't have Christmas dinner with us, but parents come first, especially on holidays."
"I don't know about Luther. I haven't spoken with him."
"You're not going to the wedding with him?" Opal asked, her tone incredulous. "I never planned to. Anyway, he'll be there. You know he wouldn't miss it. Luther is as faithful as night and day," Ruby said, with the assurance of a preacher quoting scripture.
"Yeah," Opal said, "provided you're not thinking of Alaska where you can't always count on daylight. Pearl just said that you can put my hair up."
"Good. I'll be over shortly." In the meantime, Ruby could tick off a half dozen items on her mental to do list.
At five minutes of six and with her heart pounding in her chest, Ruby took her seat on the aisle of the third row in the Lakeview Baptist Church. When strains of "Here Comes the Bride" began, Ruby turned and saw Opal, so beautiful that she seemed to wear a halo. An odd sense of peace enveloped Ruby, and she relaxed for the first time in days.
"And by the powers vested in me, I now pronounce you man and wife." The Reverend Wade Kendrick's words brought tears to Ruby's eyes, and she smiled through the stream that bathed her face. She didn't think she had ever been so happy. D'marcus kissed Opal with the reverence of a man touching his newborn child for the first time. Ruby looked around, subconsciously seeking someone, anyone, with whom to share her happiness. Her gaze fell upon Luther who sat a short distance from her, and something quickened within her. Why was Luther looking at her with such a rapt expression on his face? Her eyebrows shot up, and he surprised her with a wink.
Ruby smiled at Luther, mainly because she always smiled at him, had since she was three and he was nine and she had followed him wherever and whenever he allowed. After the service, they met on the front steps of the church, and she hugged Luther as she usually did when they met. He stepped away from her quickly, and she gazed up at him with what she knew was a quizzical expression.
"I'll see you at the reception." He patted her shoulder and walked away with a limp that was barely noticeable.
"What's wrong with Luther?"
Ruby turned to see Amber standing beside her. "I don't know. He acted kind of strange." However, she didn't dwell on that. Luther was Luther, the Rock of Gibraltar, and she didn't doubt that he would always be that way, and always be there for her and her sisters.
"Wasn't it a beautiful ceremony?" she asked Amber. "I'd better get on to the reception," she said without waiting for her sister's response. She floated down the few steps as the sunset stared her in the face. Beautiful and powerful, the great disc colored the late December sky in shades of red, blue and gray and cast a fading glow on the wedding guests, enhancing their elegance. When she reached her car, she leaned against it for a minute thinking that even the light wind that freshened the air was careful not to disturb the women's fancy hats and hairdos. The guests' cars shone as if just waxed, and white carnations trailed up the posts around the church. Beauty surrounded her. She didn't think she would ever forget the feeling of contentment, of pure joyous satisfaction she had at that moment.
Luther Biggens's feelings about what transpired during the past hour and, especially, after the wedding ceremony did not conform to Ruby's. During the ceremony, she had caught him looking at her with an expression that even a child should have understood. Shock registered on her face. Yet, he doubted that she understood what she saw. A gracious woman wouldn't hug a man, knowing that he cared for her, unless she reciprocated his feelings. Ruby had hugged him as if he were her brother, and he'd barely been able to resist trapping her in a lover's grip. He had been in love with her since she was a teenager, but she'd obviously never considered that possibility, nor had she treated him as anything other than a big brother, which meant that loving him hadn't crossed her mind. Wearily, he got into his car and headed home to change for the reception that began at eight o'clock.
Luther had once dreamed of a life with Ruby, of a time when he would teach her to love him, and they would marry, have a family and grow old together. When he thought the time had come to pursue his dream, Ruby's mother died, leaving her with the responsibility of shepherding her three sisters through school and into relationships that became marriage. Ruby had focused on her sisters and her career, denying her femininity as if she weren't a woman herself, in need of a man's love and affection.
He parked in front of his house, went inside and the loneliness of his life glared at him like a bare electric bulb swinging from a ceiling. He'd lived for thirty-five years and what did he have that was meaningful to show for it? Certainly not the ribbons and braid on the jacket he'd once worn as a commander in the navy SEALS. Or his citation for bravery during the daring exploits in Yemen that had cost him his right foot and a good part of his right leg. Prior to that, he been self-assured and fun loving, but what woman would settle for a man with his disability? The navy didn't want him, and surely Ruby deserved better.
So he continued to love her from a distance and to be there for her whenever she needed him. All the while, wanting her.
He changed into a black tuxedo, white shirt and red cummerbund that he wore with a white carnation boutonniere. A pair of black patent leather shoes replaced his lizard-skin shoes and he slipped on his Oxford gray chesterfield coat and left home for the reception. He thought of calling Ruby to ask if she'd like him to accompany her, but realized that she would probably already be at the reception handling last-minute details. With God's help, he'd get through the evening without being miserable. At times, he wanted her so badly that the pain became almost unbearable.
* * *
As the doyenne of the Lockhart family, Ruby stood at the head of the receiving line, greeting guests and making small talk. She'd been standing there about fifteen minutes, enjoying the drone of chatter that had become increasingly loud and the laughter that could be heard above it. Relaxed and happy, she let her smile tell all around her of her pride in the occasion.
"Good evening, Ruby."
Her lower lip dropped, and she gaped at the man, helpless to do otherwise. "Luther, for goodness'sake," she exclaimed. "You went home and changed." What a stupid thing to say to a man, even if the man was Luther. "Gee, you look like a million dollars." He winked, and tiny shivers raced through her. This was Luther? She managed to regain her aplomb and attempt to introduce him to the person standing beside her but suddenly couldn't remember that person's name or why the woman was standing there. As it happened, Luther was already acquainted with the woman.
Ruby watched Luther as he continued down the receiving line. Around six feet one inch and one hundred and ninety pounds, he carried himself so gracefully, no one would know he'd had that terrible accident.
And he was handsome. Why hadn't she ever noticed that his long silky lashes cast a shadow over his big brown eyes? And those dark eyes against the olive tones of his face Oh, well, there was no reason why she should have noticed, she told herself. After all, he was practically a member of her family. She shook her head in wonder. At least she should have noticed his mouth; that lusty bottom lip would win a prize.
The best man's announcement of the bride and groom interrupted her lustful thoughts. The lights dimmed, and Mr. and Mrs. D'marcus Armstrong danced the first dance. Just as Ruby removed her jacket, exposing bare shoulders covered only with spaghetti straps, Luther asked her to dance. She hadn't known that he danced, and she wondered how she should behave.
"Don't be so careful," he said. "I never attempt anything unless I know I can do it."
"You look good," she told him. "In fact, you look uh great."
"Thank you," he said, staring into her eyes. "I like the way you look, too."
Why did he unnerve her? This was Luther, and she had always felt safer with him than with anyone else. "Thanks. Amber doesn't like me in blue."
A grin formed around the sensuous mouth that she'd just noticed for the first time, and a smile made his eyes sparkle. "Amber's a woman. What would she know about what looks good on you?" He laughed, and she joined the mirth, although she wondered why she laughed when, in truth, she was thoroughly confused.
He led her in a slow fox trot, and it occurred to her that his disability made no difference. As they danced, he clasped her right hand lightly, but his hand at her waist proclaimed power and authority. She relaxed in his arms, and let the music flow over her. When the music stopped, he stepped back and half bowed, a bit mockingly, she thought. With his hand at her back, he walked with her to their table for ten, sat opposite her and fastened his gaze on her.
"Champagne, ma'am?" the waiter asked her. She took a glass from the silver tray and thanked the waiter. "They'll be cutting the cake in a few minutes," he said. "Right now, we're preparing for the toast."
She drank sparingly, usually an occasional glass of wine with dinner at a good restaurant. She hadn't tasted champagne in ages. The best man offered the toast, raised his glass and invited the guests to join him. They had splurged on an expensive champagne, and after tasting it, she licked her lips approvingly and slowly drained the glass.
"This is good stuff," her cousin, Paige Richards, said. "Just the thing in this candlelit room with the orchestra playing this soft, romantic music. It's enough to make a woman say yes."
Ruby's gaze drifted to Luther, but she spoke to Paige. "Is that so? Then I think I'll have another glass."
Paige's eyes widened. "I'm not sure you should do that, Ruby. This isn't like you."