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As the small seaplane soared over the turquoise-blue waters of the Fijian islands, Melanie Watts could hardly breathe much less look out the window. Her fingers were finally beginning to cramp after gripping the edges of her seat for the entire seven minutes that the small plane had been in the air. She felt tension in her back and neck as a result of not being able to relax.
To say that the seaplane with a seven-passenger capacity was not her preferred mode of transportation was an understatement. But it was the quickest way to get from Fiji's Nadi International Airport to Malolo Island, where she, her best friend, Richelle, Richelle's fiance, Roy, and their wedding guests would be staying at the much-acclaimed Liku-liku Lagoon Resort.
"Can't you just go to Jamaica?" Melanie had tried to reason with Richelle. "Four hours nonstop from JFK, same time zone as New York, nice and easy to get to."
"Roy and I want to do something different," Richelle had explained. "Something that not every couple does. We know Fiji's far, and expensive, which is why Roy's going to pay for everyone. And please don't tell me you can't make it. If you're not at my wedding, I'll be devastated."
In the end, even though Melanie wasn't thrilled with the idea of a superlong flight, she knew she couldn't deny her best friend of fourteen years. Of course she would go to Fiji and be Richelle's maid of honor. And with Roy, a recently retired multimillionaire NFL quarterback, footing the entire bill for seven nights in paradise? Melanie didn't have one good reason to say no.
"Oh, my goodness!" Richelle exclaimed, and Melanie flinched reflexively. "I see the resort! Look at all the bungalows over the water! Oh, Roy, we're really here!"
Melanie opened her eyes to peek through the window. She was sitting on the left side of the plane, and Richelle, who was to her right, was leaning against her as she tried to get a better view of the resort.
There had been room on the plane for everyone to have a window seat, but Melanie hadn't wanted to sit with one of Richelle's or Roy's relatives she didn't know. Richelle had wanted to sit with Roy, which was why they had crammed in the only row with three small seats.
"Oh, wow," Melanie said, taking in the sights below. It was extraordinary. Not to mention the stretch of pristine golden beach. Melanie inhaled her first relaxing breath.
But suddenly, the plane's engine, which had been loud for the entire trip, sounded like it had just conked out and the plane rapidly began to fall.
"Oh, God!" Melanie cried, fear seizing her body. "Did the engine just die?"
"We are beginning our descent, ma'am," the pilot, a man named Suli, explained.
"Butbut the engine," Melanie protested. "Relax," Richelle said. "We're in paradise."
"So it's okay if we die because we're in paradise?" Mela-nie countered.
Richelle giggled. "Mel, I swear, sometimes you let your fear stop you from enjoying life. Did you even see the view? All those small islands and the ocean's different shades of blue?"
I saw some of it," Melanie admitted sheepishly.
"It was stunning. Priceless. Yet you had your eyes closed."
"At least I'm on this plane. Give me credit for that." Rationally, Melanie knew the plane would have to go down, but she was still beyond afraid. This was a new experience for herone she'd never anticipated doing, or ever cared to do.
"The only reason you agreed to go on this plane was because you feared you might fly off the catamaran if it was going too fast," Richelle said. "Or that the helicopter would crash. You figured a seaplane was at least equipped to land on the water."
The seaplane swooped, and Melanie uttered a cry. Then it leveled off, and she was suddenly wishing she'd been sedated for this trip. "I'm starting to second-guess my decision. I'm feeling very Tom Hanks in Cast Away."
"You see the small island on the right?" Suli said, pointing. "That's where they filmed Cast Away."
"Wow," Richelle said, and Virginia who sat two rows in front of them echoed the sentiment. They had all heard that Monuriki was close to the resort.
Which didn't exactly impress Melanie right now. "We'll be landing momentarily," Suli announced, reading Melanie's thoughts exactly.
Richelle patted her hand. "I swear, Melsometimes it's not just about the destination. It's about enjoying the ride."
As the plane went lower and lower, Melanie closed her eyes and braced herself. Then it crashed against the water, and she let out a small shriek.
Seconds passed. She was breathing frantically, but she was breathing. Water wasn't flooding the small plane. They were safe.
The other passengers on the plane began to cheer.
"Look at this place!" Richelle said excitedly. "I can't believe we're here! Open your eyes, Mel."
Melanie obeyed. And she finally drew in a calming breath and released her death-grip on the seat. The plane was slowing as it approached a dock near the over-the-water bungalows, and Melanie had to admit, the place looked magical. From the rooms that seemed to float on the water, to the mountains in the background, to the stretch of beach
it was postcard perfect.
"We're really here."
Melanie looked to her right to see Richelle slip her arms around her fiance's neck and plant a kiss on his lips.
Massaging her fingers to get the cramp out, Melanie glanced at the relatives in the seats around her. They were mostly talking excitedly among themselves around how gorgeous the place was. But Edward, Roy's cousin, immediately met her gaze and smiled.
Melanie offered him a polite smile, and then turned back to look out the plane's window. Edward had been making awkward conversation with her for two days now, from the time they'd first gotten to JFK on Tuesday afternoon, but now that they were finally in Fiji, she hoped she could escape him.
As Melanie continued to look outside, she realized that the plane had come to a stop while they were still a ways from the dock.
"Um, excuse me?" Melanie called to the pilot, leaning in the plane's small aisle. "With all due respect, are we supposed to swim to the shore from here?"
"Miss, don't worry," Suli said. "Look."
She did. And she saw a boat heading toward them. Of course, the adventure wouldn't end with the seaplane landing on the shore. They had to get on a boat to get to the dock.
Melanie forced a laugh. What else could she do? At least the plane had landed safely and they were all in one piece.
Soon, they were loaded onto a boat too small for Mela-nie's comfort and taken to the safety of the dock. Only then did she truly start to relax. Members of the resort were on the wooden walkway with guitars, singing what she believed was the same welcome song they'd been serenaded with at the airport. It was lively and jovial, and in the native tongue, so Melanie couldn't understand a word of it.
But she did understand the warm, inviting smiles the staff members worewhich immediately helped to lift her spirits.
Melanie did a 360-degree turn once she was standing on the dock. She looked out at the dazzling view of the vast turquoise waters finally able to appreciate its beauty.
She spontaneously smiled. They were in Fiji. And it was truly an island of paradise. From the lush mountains to the stunning shoreline, it was clear that she had left the bustling world of New York City behind.
As the men continued to sing, a woman from the resort approached Melanie. "Bula. Welcome to Likuliku."
"Bula," Melanie repeated. Once they'd landed at the airport, she had quickly learned that bula meant "hello."
The woman then placed a string necklace with a wooden trinket around Melanie's neck.
"Thank you," Melanie told her.
The woman moved past her to greet Richelle, and placed a necklace around her neck, as well. Once Richelle stepped past the cheerful woman, she came to stand beside Melanie and took hold of her arm. "Oh, my God, Melanie, look at this place." Richelle squealed in delight. "It's even more beautiful than what we saw in the pictures!"
"I know," Melanie agreed. "It's incredible."
"II can't believe it." Richelle's voice caught. Melanie met her friend's gaze. She saw the look of awe on her face that matched the tone in her voice. "It's perfect, Richelle. The absolute perfect place for your wedding. " Even if it did take a hundred years to get here.
Richelle squealed again. She then giddily skipped over to Roy. She threw her arms around his waist, and he pulled her into a tight embrace. Then he brought his lips down on hers.
"Get a room," Roy's older brother, Lance, teased. But even he was holding his wife's hand.
Melanie watched as Richelle snuggled close to Roy, then as Lance slipped both arms around Lisa from behind. It was as if just being here had quickly transfixed the two couples with a spell of romance.
Melanie couldn't help but feel slightly wistful. Here she was in Fiji for Richelle's wedding, a place that seemed to ooze an aura of romance. It was hard to forget that just nine months ago she herself had been scheduled to walk down the aisle. Nine months ago, on a bright September morning, she had gotten dressed up in her beautiful white gown, had gone to the stylist to get her hair and makeup done, and Richelle had been by her side, telling her that the day would go mar-velously well.
But the wedding never happened. Melanie hadn't been able to go through with it. En route to the church, she had suddenly been seized with the fear that her marriage was doomed to fail, and no matter how Richelle and her bridesmaids had tried to convince her that she simply had the pre-wedding jitters, Melanie had ultimately instructed the limo driver to turn around and drive her back home.
Richelle and the bridesmaids had gone on to the church, where they'd told Melanie's parents her decision. And instead of seeing their only daughter married, her parents had had to break the news to the groom and wedding guests that she wouldn't be showing.
"Beautiful place, isn't it?"
Jarred from her trip down memory lane, Melanie spun around to see Edward standing behind her. "Um, yeah," she agreed. "Gorgeous."
"I love the still of the morning, don't you? No sounds of traffic. Just chirping birds and flowing waves."
"And the beautiful singing," Melanie added. She looked toward the trio of singers, where Edward's sister, Virginia, was shaking her heavy body to the beat.
"And the singing," Edward acknowledged. "We're definitely a long way from New York."
"Go get your necklace," Melanie told him.
When he walked away from her, Melanie went back over to Richelle and Roy. "We don't have to wait here for our luggage, right? The hotel staff is going to bring it to us when it arrives?"
"Right," Roy said. "All we have to do is check in."
"Then let's do that. It's barely after six in the morning, and I can't wait to take a long nap."
They all began to walk toward the hotel's main building, which Melanie could see was at the end of the path they were on. After a few seconds, Richelle came beside her and said, "Hey, why do you look so glum?"
Melanie faced her, forcing a smile. "How could I feel glum in a place like this? This is incredible. I'm just exhausted. We left New York Tuesday afternoon. And now it's Thursday morning."
"I know," Richelle said. "Quite the adventure getting here, but it's totally worth it."
"I just hope the beds are comfortable." As if to emphasize the point that she needed rest before doing anything else, Melanie yawned.
Until Richelle and Roy's wedding on Sunday, in just three more days, Melanie and Richelle would be sharing a room. Then Richelle and Roy would move into a honeymoon suite, which was a private bungalow on the beach.
They didn't have a schedule for today, other than to arrive, relax and recuperate from the jet lag. Tomorrow, for most of the afternoon, Melanie and Richelle were scheduled for time at the spa. After that, there would be a dinner for all the family and friends who had come for the wedding. And the next day, Roy and Richelle would become husband and wife.
"Have you ever seen a lobby like this in your life?" Mela-nie asked once they reached it. It was like a giant hut, with walls that doubled as the roof, angling on each side and coming together to form an upside down V. The walls didn't quite hit the ground, allowing a breeze to flow in from beneath them. There were no doors. The path from the dock simply led straight through to the lobby. It was a truly open concept type of building, blending with nature.
There were beams beneath the roof structure to give it support, and lighting fixtures that hung from the beams. The exterior of the roof was covered in straw, giving the place a true rustic island feel.
Had the resort in Aruba where she and Lawrence had planned to honeymoon been this beautiful? Melanie wondered.
"Hey, something's wrong," Richelle insisted, moving to stand in front of Melanie before they reached the front desk.
"Talk to me."
"I already told you, I'm tired."
Richelle shook her head. Then she led Melanie to a chaise with red cushions near the wall, while the rest of their travel party headed to reception. "You're thinking about Lawrence, aren't you?"
"Of course not," Melanie lied, forcing a smile.
"Mel, you don't have to lie to me."
Richelle knew her too well. "Look, this trip isn't about me. It's not about my failed relationship. This trip is about you. You and Roy. How you finally found the man you were meant to spend your life with. And how you're going to have the most amazing wedding ever, in this paradise."
Richelle beamed from ear to ear. "I am, aren't I?"
"Of course you are."
Richelle drew in a breath. "I justI can't believe this is actually happening. That only six months after being devastated by Vern, I found my Mr. Right. Who knew that Vern cheating on me would be the best thing to ever happen to me?"
Four months before Melanie was to marry, Richelle herself had already had a date set to walk down the aisle. But a couple weeks before the wedding, she had discovered that her fiance had been cheating on her. Not that he had cheated once, but that he'd carried on a long-term affair. The news had crushed her, naturally, and the engagement had been called off. But after allowing herself a few months to grieve, Richelle quickly got back in the saddle and started dating. Having created a profile on an online dating site, she was determined that fate was going to deal her a better hand.
And maybe it was that belief, that confidence, that faith, that had led to her finding Roy. Only as fate would have it, she didn't meet him online. She met him while trying to hail a cab outside a restaurant in Soho. And it was more like hate-at-first sight rather than love, considering they got into a little spat over who had hailed the cab first. Roy had acquiesced on one conditionthat Richelle would take his number and call him.
Which Richelle had no plans to do until the colleaguewhose birthday she'd been attending at the restauranthad encouraged her. What did she have to lose?