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He'd damn well rather face a firing squad than escort Andromeda "Andi" Mitchell down the aisle at her wedding and "give her away" to another man. U.S. Army Major Colton Sawyer propped his booted feet on the edge of the makeshift table in his barracks in Afghanistan. "That's not going to work," he said over the dismal phone connection to his buddy Rion Mitchell.
Rion, also stationed in Afghanistan but at a different base, said, "Colton, my leave's been denied. You know how the army can be. There's no rhyme or reason to some of these decisions." There truly was no rationale sometimes behind whether one soldier was denied leave and another granted his or hers. Rion and Colton had both applied for leave to attend Rion's sister's wedding and catch up. "I can't walk her down the aisle if I'm not there so you're the next best thing, bro. You've gotta stand in for me."
Colton rubbed the back of his neck with his right hand. Dammit. He and Rion had grown up next door to one another. Not only were their mothers best friends, he and Rion had been best friends since dia-perdom. They were closer than brothers. Growing up, Colton had spent as much time at the Mitchell house as his own, and vice versa.
When Rion's father was killed in a car crash in Florida en route to a conference, fifteen-year-old Colton had grieved as deeply as the Mitchell family over the loss. The entire Sawyer family had been bereft over the loss of their dear friend. Gerald Mitchell, an astronomy professor, had named his children Andromeda and Orion and even given Colton his own honorary constellation name of Pyxis. He'd claimed Colton should be known as the "compass" because a person could always count on Colton's course to be steady. But this was one time he simply couldn't stay the course .
He grasped at another solution. "What about your cousin Eli? It should be a family member."
"Eli lives in some remote town in Alaska," Rion countered. "I'm sure he won't be flying in from Good Riddance or wherever the hell he lives just for Andi's wedding. And you're like family. C'mon, Pyxis," he said. "If Dad could handpick someone to replace him and me in this role, you know he'd say you."
Damn, Rion. He could sell an Eskimo an icemaker in December. "Yeah, well, how's your mother going to feel about this?"
No one ever called it a nervous breakdown, but in retrospect that's exactly what had happened to Daisy Mitchell following her husband's death. She'd gotten better, but she'd never, ever been the same. She had an almost obsessive compulsion to not let Andi and Rion out of her sight. The family vacations the Mitchells and Sawyers had taken together became a thing of the past. Obviously her fears were driven by Gerald's death while he was travelingin Daisy's world, the only safe place was Savannah.
Colton had known from the time he was a boy he wanted a military career. He'd known his calling was to serve and protect. He'd never made any secret of it and had joined ROTC the minute he could sign up for it in school. Rion had joined as well but had never seemed particularly interested in making the military his career. However, during his senior year that all shifted and he had decided the army was the route he wanted to take, as well. Sure, as best friends he and Rion had discussed Rion's options and his decision, but Colton hadn't swayed him one way or the other. However, when Rion announced his decision to leave Savannah and join the army after college, Daisy had suffered another minibreakdown. And somewhere along the way she'd figured Colton was to blame for what she saw as her son's desertion. She'd never come right out and said it, but she'd implied it to him more than once and he'd never quite felt welcome in her home again. He couldn't imagine she'd want him walking Andi down the aisle.
"Mom'll be fine with it." Colton could almost see Rion's nonchalant shrug. "I keep thinking Andi will change her mind."
Something inside him suspended at Rion's declaration even though it wouldn't change Colton's situation. "Why would you think that?"
"I just don't think he's the right guy for her. I don't know that he appreciates her fun-loving spirit. Hell, I don't think Andi's really in love with him. I think she's settling for someone she likes well enough but then what the hell do I know, I only met the dude once."
Colton felt twisted inside. He wanted Andi to be happy. "You picked a helluva time to bring it up now when she's getting married in two weeks." And in part that was because Colton went out of his way not to discuss Andi with Rion. Rion knew him too well. For years now, Andi had been a topic best avoided, in Colton's opinion.
"Yeah, well, Andi's got to make her own choices. We all have to make our own choices, don't we, and then live with the consequences?" Rion was known to make the cryptic comment now and then. "So, c'mon, Pyxis, as an honorary member of the Mitchell family, say you'll fill in for me and walk Andi down the aisle to give her away to rising junior bank executive Blanton Prichard."
Rion's words were like a knife twisting in his gut but all of Colton's viable arguments were gone and the truth wasn't an option, in his book. Truer words had never been spoken that often the right thing to do wasn't the easy thing. He closed his eyes and resigned himself to the necessary task. "Okay, I'll do it."
"Cool. I knew I could count on you." Colton had just agreed to walk down the aisle with the woman he loved so she could marry another man.
"Is he here?" Andi asked when Martha Anne Sawyer, Colton's mother, walked into the grand ballroom of the Whitfield Mansion where the Friday evening wedding rehearsal was wrapping up.
Andi had had butterflies in her stomach throughout the entire thing. She was sure it was because, well, she was going to be married tomorrow and not because she was anxious or excited or nervous or any of the above about seeing Colton Sawyer again for the first time in several years. Granted, he'd broken her heart into little pieces but that had been her own private business. He hadn't meant to because a man like Colton would never deliberately break anyone's heart, unlike a whole lot of other guys out there.
No, he'd broken her heart because he'd never seemed to know she existed as anything other than Rion's pain-in-the-ass little sister. God, she'd had a crush on him since she was a kid. And she thought she'd outgrown it until her freshman year at the Savannah College of Art and Design, when she was nineteen and he was twenty-five and he'd come home on leave.
It had been horrible and wonderful and everything in between. She'd fallen so madly, passionately in love with him, without the slightest indication he saw her as anything other than the girl next door. She'd also been terrified. He was about to ship out as one of the earliest deployments to Iraq.
Numerous times she'd considered telling him how she felt, but he'd never shown any interest outside of being her older brother's friend and her neighbor, and the thought of making him feel awkward. She'd just kept her feelings to herself. And as if she didn't have enough cards stacked against her, she'd heard from her brother Colton's views on combat troops who had to leave wives behind. He wasn't critical of the guys who were married but he would never think about marrying himself because he didn't want to put a woman in that position. Not when he stood a good chance of dying or coming back seriously injured.
Andi had replayed every snippet of their conversations, the little they'd exchanged on that visit, a thousand times. He'd been interested in and encouraged her in her college and career plans. He'd left and she'd prayed every day for his safe return. She'd told herself she had to get over him, that she was simply infatuated and she had no future with him.
She'd gone out of her way to make sure their paths didn't cross when he came back periodically to visit his mother and sister. She'd dated sporadically and then two years ago she'd met Blanton. They'd been engaged the past year. She'd finally gotten over Colton Sawyer. The irony that he'd be the one to step in for her brother in escorting her down the aisle and "giving her away" wasn't lost on her. Nonetheless, her heart was beating a little harder, a little faster, waiting on him to walk through the door.
"He's not going to make the rehearsal," Martha Anne said. "His flight was canceled due to storms. He won't be getting in until tomorrow morning but he should definitely make the wedding."
Disappointment warred with relief. She'd been waiting all afternoon to see him again for the first time in a long time, but now the proverbial moment of reckoning was put off a little longer.
Andi's mother, Daisy, shook her head, her salt-and-pepper bob swaying with the movement. "You'd have thought the army would've shown some understanding that this was Rion's sister's wedding and we needed him here." Andi knew how she felt. She'd been terribly disappointed her big brother wouldn't be sharing her big day with her. "It was sweet of Colton to step in for him." It was faint, but Andi didn't miss the grudging note. Her mother was careful to mask it but she resented Colton. Her attitude toward Colton had undergone a subtle change, but a change nonetheless, when Rion announced his decision to join the army. "But now he won't know what he's supposed to do tomorrow."
Sonya, their uber-efficient wedding planner, made a soothing motion with her hands. "No problem. If he can arrive a few minutes early tomorrow I can easily go over with him what he needs to do. No worries." She smiled at the wedding party and the respective families. "We're done here. Tomorrow should go beautifully." She put her hands together and beamed. "It's going to be a day you'll never forget. Everyone can head over for the rehearsal dinner."
Blanton slipped his arm around Andi's waist and spoke up, "My last meal with my fiancée," he said, pulling her tighter against him. Everyone laughed except for Patrice, Andi's maid of honor. Andi wasn't altogether sure Patrice didn't have a bit of a thing for Blanton. Andi had caught a miserable expression on Patrice's face, one that reminded her of just how she'd felt when she'd been around Colton all those years ago, that made Andi wonder. Blanton continued, "I guess that didn't sound quite right. I just meant that when we have our next meal together, we'll be married." He really was a sweetie. He leaned in closer and murmured in her ear, "You might want to stick with just a salad tonight. You've put on a little weight." He tightened his hand on her waist for emphasis. "And I know you don't want to look chunky in the pictures tomorrow."
Well, there was nothing sweet about that. It was on the tip of her tongue to say if he didn't want to look like a jerk in the pictures tomorrow, he might want to just stay out of them since that was a butthead comment to make. However, she held her tongue.
This was the second time in a week he'd mentioned her weight. She'd planned to lose five pounds and she'd meant to really try but she'd been feeding her nerves for the past two weeks. She might've put on a pound or two that might've settled on her middle, but she'd be damned if she needed Blanton pointing it out to her. And she certainly didn't need him directing her food choices.
"Actually, I'm looking forward to the prime rib and mashed potatoes along with the salad," she said sweetly. The words they'd just practiced echoed in her head: for better, for worse, in sickness and in health. She silently added her own verbiage, and five pounds heavier. "And cheesecake for dessert."
His look clearly said I'm just trying to help, but he wisely limited himself to an, "Okay."
Andi cut him some slack. He was probably as nervous about tomorrow as she was. She'd had some doubts in the past couple of weeks. She thought she and Blanton would have a good life together but she simply wasn't sure if it was enough. A very real part of her had always longed to leave Savannah and explore the world. She'd forever been drawn to Boston and New York, with San Francisco coming in a distant third.
Blanton had promised her they'd travel but then he'd balked on the honeymoon plans. Andi'd been thinking a bed-and-breakfast at one of California's wineries, she'd had her eye on one in Napa Valley. Blanton, however, had nixed going farther than the near-neighboring Sea Island for their honeymoon.
And perhaps he could be a little controlling at times and sometimes just a wee tad boring, but wasn't that what relationships were about? Compromise. And as her mother had told her when Andi had discussed her concerns with her, no one was perfect and if you loved someone, you worked through issues. So, who was to say Blanton wasn't suffering some of those same reservations she'd had?
Her father had named her Andromeda, which signified a maiden chained to a rock. Since the day her father died, and even more so once Rion left, her rock had been familial duty and obligation chained by love and guilt. Her mother wanted Andi close. It had been an ongoing mantra. And the looming threat of her mother having another breakdown had colored every decision Andi had made as a teenager and an adult.
She glanced at the man at her side. Her mother was thrilled Andi and Blanton were marrying. Andi knew that. Had it colored part of her decision to say yes? Perhaps, but she did love him.