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I never should have come.
Arley Meehan stood in the middle of her sister Kate's boisterous wedding reception, trying not to look as mis-erable as she felt. The pub was packed with military per-sonnel, the Airborne contingent from Fort Bragg, courtesy of Kate's new husbandhis side of the family, as it were. She was happy for Kate, for them bothof course she wasand she had wanted this opportunity to get out and have a good time for a change. But weddings were no place for the newly-divorced, no matter how bad the marriage had been, and Arley wished now that she had stayed home with her little boy for an evening of fast food and popcorn, a rented movie and lots of giggling.
The Celtic/bluegrass band her uncle Patrick had hired for the occasion suddenly straddled both genres and began to play a wooden-whistle-and-banjo-spiked ren-dition of "Sally Goodin," much to the delight of the guests. A few of the more adventurous couples began to dance, whether they actually knew how to or not, making Arley's immediate vicinity a dangerous place to be. She moved out of the way, dodging a number of low dips and high kicks in the process, and she recognized a soldier standing alone on the other side of the pub. She knew his nameSpecialist Will Baron. He was a medic who worked with Kate at the post hospital and, at the moment, was looking every bit as alone as she felt. Arley had met him once, in passing, last summer, before she and her sisters had even noticed that Kate had been well on her way to marrying a seriously injured para-trooper.
Arley swiftly headed in his direction. She had been given a token assignment for the nightsomething her oldest sister, Grace, had devised to keep Arley the Handful out of trouble. She was supposed to circulate among the guests and make sure everyone was having a good time, which had seemed totally unnecessary until now. Clearly, Will Baron was the place to start.
"So how homesick are you?" she asked when she reached him.
He looked around, his quick double take suggesting he remembered who she was.
"Arley Meehan," she said anyway. "Welcome to the Kate Meehan-Cal Doyle wedding festivities. Are you having a good time, Specialist Baron?" "Yes," he said politely.
She gave him an arch look. "Not true, I think."
He almost smiled. "Actually, I, forgot how much I missed it, these family things."
So did I, she thought. She had missed her sisters terribly, despite deliberately isolating herself from them for a long time. The humiliation of having been betrayed by the man she'd loved, of having made yet another bad choice by marrying him in the first place, had been too much for her. She'd needed to have time to recover and regroup, and to get over the fact that her sisters had been so right and she had been so glaringly wrong. Tonight was really her first big venture back into the fold.
"How's Scottie?" Will asked, and she smiled. She'd forgotten that her son had been with her when she and Will Baron had run into each other last summer.
"You remembered his name," she said in surprise.
"It's something I doremember things. Is he still collecting rocks?"
"Still," she said. "At the moment, though, he wants to go on the honeymoon."
"Well, that ought to be, interesting."
"Especially since he's learned to make armpit noises." He grinnedsomething Arley decided he should definitely do more often.
"Good for him," he said. "Is he here tonight?"
"No, he and the rest of the cousins are having their own wild partypizza and video games and wedding cake with the great-aunts. I think he'd rather be else-where. Tonight's our regular fast food and movie rental night. So where are you from?"
There was a lull in the music, leaving a strange gap in the din around them.
"Arizona. Window Rock. The Navajo Reservation."
"So you're, Navajo?"
"Half," he said. "My birth mother is one of The People."
"Your birth mother?" she asked, but he didn't respond to her clear invitation to elaborate.
"You were brought up with, "The People,'I take it," she said, deciding to respect his reticence. She had plenty of things she didn't want to talk about, either.
"With. By. For," he said.
"And your fatherwhat was he?" she asked, without considering whether it was polite to do so. She wanted to know, and she had earned her "Arley the Handful" title as much from being curious as from being reckless.
The band started up again, as lively as ever. "A Tar Heel," he said over the racket. "Full-blooded." She smiled, appreciating his reference to his father having been born in North Carolina.
"Is he from around here?"
"Not exactly," he said.
"What does that mean?"
"He, died when I was three. I don't know much about him, actually."
"Oh. I'm sorry. Well, you can always kill two birds with one stone," she said, and he gave her a puzzled look.
The noise escalated, and she leaned closer to explain. "If I'd joined the army to see the world, " she began, trying to make herself heard over the drumbeats. didn't comment past him the remark, the subtle threat of consequences, and, neither, she thought, did Will Baron.
"So you did, Scott," she said agreeably. She smiled and didn't continue. He didn't appreciate it.
"Let's go outsidenow," he said. He reached to take her arm, and she jerked back. Will moved, putting himself between her and Scott, close enough to keep Scott at bay and still leave room for him to back downif he had enough sense.
"Do you want to go with him?" Will asked her.
"No," Arley said, hating that she couldn't keep her voice steady.
"That's good enough for me," Will said. "For them, too," he added, nodding toward the nearby group of paratroopers, who were already on the alert and looking in their direction.
Will and Scott stared at each other. "Excuse me," Arley said abruptly. "It was interest-ing talking to you, Specialist," she said to Will. Then she did what she did bestwalked off and left the mess she had created.
"Arley! What do you want from me?" Scott called after her, as if she were the unreasonable one.
Nothing, she thought. And that in itself was a reve-lation. She didn't want, didn't need, anything from him anymore.
She kept walking, dodging the dancers, knowing Scott was likely following her. He didn't give up easily. The real question was, what did he want?
She could see Uncle Patrick working hard behind the crowded bar, and she headed in that direction. "Ah! Reinforcements!" he said when he saw her. "Find yourself an apron, darlin'. I need another pair of hands."
Arley slipped behind the bar. Her knees were shaking as she found an apron and managed to wrap it around herself, taking her place next to her uncle, rushing to fill mug after mug with beer.
"Steady now," Uncle Patrick said quietly. "Scottie is safe with the aunts and he-who-shall-not-be-named has taken himself out the door."
When she finally got the nerve to look up, she didn't see Scott anywhere. She didn't see Will Baron, either.
She bowed her head again and filled another mug. So much for getting out and having a good time.