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September 9, Amphibious Base, Coronado, California
Dark clouds filled the sky above her. Please don't rain.
Aria rubbed her arms, hoping to chase away the chill. It didn't work. She shook the sand off the hem of her bridal gown and eyed the weather encroaching on her wedding day. It was impossible not to worry about a deluge, her not-present-and-accounted-for fiancé, and the guests who watched her like a hawk.
What would happen if Dan didn't show?
Her throat constricted. Oh, God, I'd be mortified!
The sun peeked momentarily from behind the clouds, briefly spreading a glittering cache of diamonds across the water. Shouldn't she relax? Coronado was known for its mild weather; though every now and then, nature kicked her heels, and a rainstorm became a tropical downpour that flooded everything and practically drowned those in its path.
Her hand touched her throat but it didn't stop the choking sensation from growing tighter.
"Are you okay?" asked a passing guest.
"Fine. Thanks." She pasted on a smile and dropped her hand, lacing her fingers together, hoping he believed her.
A class of BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) trainees with numbers painted on their helmets ran by. Sweat dripped down their young faces as they shouldered giant packs on their backs. Several instructors nodded at her as the group sped by soundlessly.
"Dan. Where are you?" she murmured. Perhaps the white-knuckle look wasn't supporting the vision of a calm bride. She didn't want to be one of those monster brides. But with this completely crazy event-whose fiancé came to the wedding via helicopter? Didn't that count as understandably upsetting?
Waving back at the group gathered behind her, she said, "Just a few more minutes." She prayed that comment would be true.
Just then the wind picked up, making her curls fly askew and the white tulle tied to the backs of the folding chairs dance. The simple decorations of flowers and fabric felt right for getting married in God's biggest cathedral. Really, if it had been a regular sunny day, it would be beautiful.
Concentrate on something positive, she told herself. A memory splashed through her mind.
This spot, this exact spot, was where Dan had proposed.
She'd never forget that day. The sparkle of mischief in his eyes, the way his palms felt sweaty in hers, and the flourish with which he'd bent down on one knee and placed the diamond on her finger. Then he'd asked, "Will you be mine, forever? Please, say yes. I don't have the heart to take this off."
She remembered thinking, We've known each other for such a short time, almost four weeks now, and yet it feels so right. Tears had slid down her cheeks as she threw herself into his arms. "Yes, yes, yes!" she'd replied before she kissed him with every bit of happiness in her heart.
He'd scooped her up in his arms and found a secluded spot, where they made love.
Gooey warmth and giddiness filled her belly at the memory of their whirlwind romance. They had created memorable times together thus far, and she wondered what the future held for them. If Dan was as caring and loving as he'd been this first month, then it was going to be a wonderful forever.
"You look lovely," said the wife of one of Dan's teammates. She smiled kindly.
"Thank you," Aria replied. "I'm glad you could come."
Dan's friends and their wives made up most of the guest list. The only people on her side were her uncle, her brother, and her best friend, Mark. That was it. Friendship didn't come that easily to her, though she had a whole address book full of acquaintances and work contacts.
"I see the helos," shouted a tall man in a white uniform.
Oh, thank God.
Her brother Jimmy came running across the beach. All gangly limbs and fourteen years' worth of awkwardness, dressed in a tux and sneakers. "They're coming!" he shouted. "You should have seen them jump into the water. It was insane. Can I do that?"
She gave him a placating smile and brushed a strand of his wild hair behind his ear.
"We'll talk to Dan about it later, okay? Please, go tell Uncle David to come down. We have to take our places."
"Okay," he said, ducking out of her reach.
Under her breath, she added, "Heaven help us that this goes smoothly." She'd never been more stressed-out in her whole life.
The chaplain waved at her. Attired in his formal whites, he looked uncomfortably hot as he tugged at his collar. "Miss Kavanagh, I have another event at 1730. You have about thirty minutes before I need to leave."
The chaplain's tone wasn't judgmental, but she had a hard time not taking it to heart. It wasn't her fault that her fiancé had gotten called for an Op so close to the wedding ceremony. Of course, if she had her way, she'd have told the Navy to put their mission on hold so they could have their special day. When she had brought up that idea to Dan, he'd laughed out loud, telling her the CO would get a kick out of the statement. Unfortunately, things didn't always work in her favor, despite her best efforts.
"They're almost here. It will only be a few more minutes. Thank you for your patience and time, Chaplain O'Connor." He nodded and took his place under the small canopy that faced out toward the ocean.
She knew she shouldn't be nervous. Loving Dan was one of the best experiences in her life. She couldn't imagine life without him.
"It's time, Aria! Hurry! Go hide!" said Caty, Dan's sister, as she rushed over. Her future sister-in-law had a gorgeous tan and model-like slim figure. The dress she wore highlighted her generous cleavage and ensured Caty got plenty of attention. That kind of perfection could be intimidating.
"Caty, wait up." Naturally, her husband, Hank-an accountant-was never far behind, making sure that no one else was appreciating what was his.
"Aria, are you listening to me? I can see them coming onto the beach. Don't you want to hide yourself?" Caty demanded, hands on her hips.
Caty hadn't liked the idea of her brother marrying Aria so quickly, but eventually Dan had swayed her. His parents were another story. They had gone totally ballistic when they heard the news. It was even worse than when they had wanted Dan to go to Harvard and become a lawyer and he'd told them that "life was full of disappointments, and if he was one to them, then they could just choose to stay out of his future"...and thus far, they had. They hadn't even sent a card or a wedding present, preferring to not even acknowledge that the event was taking place today.
She admired his strength, though she would have liked to meet his mom and dad; to let them know she was a supportive part of Dan's world, and that although this was a very short courtship, it was going to be a very long marriage. Perhaps, by building a relationship with Caty, she could bridge the chasm between Dan and his family. If there were relatives to be had-to add to their lives-she wanted them in their future.
"I'm on it." Aria gave her soon-to-be sister-in-law a willing smile and then headed for the white changing tent they'd erected for this very moment.
"Is this the wedding you dreamed of? I think I would have opted for inside," said a woman in glasses, whose name escaped her.
Aria just nodded her head. What could she say? It didn't seem appropriate to mention the real reasons they were getting married on the beach-sentimental as well as financial. She just couldn't imagine spending money on a hall or hotel when this place was completely free and available whenever they wanted it. Of course, she'd opted to decorate the edges of the small canopy herself with real flowers-daisy chains interwoven with small hunks of Queen Anne's lace. Her mother had taught her to make them when she was a child.
A hand caught her elbow and she looked up, relieved. It was her best friend, Mark Anders. "Hey, there." His yellow tuxedo brought out his dark hair nicely and showed off the glimmer of gold in his eyes. She was so glad he had agreed to wear it. That was a good friend, one who'd wear her favorite color and act as man of honor.
"I thought you could use a break, or an out. We could keep walking and have you into my Hummer in about five minutes." He had an evil twinkle in his eyes and a smile playing on his lips. "Just kidding!"
"Ha, ha." Aria lightly punched his arm. "Some joke! You know Dan's the first man I've ever loved. He's my heart." She rubbed at the tickle under her nose. "For the record, he's going to be the last, too. I'm only marrying once."
"I'm sorry. Just trying to lighten the mood...you seem so tense." He brought his mouth close to her ear. "But in case you're worried...there are other men out there. You could postpone this and try others...make sure he's the one."
"I'm sure. Now, stop being a pain in the ass! I've got to go inside the tent before Dan sees me. Everything has to be perfect." She stopped in front of the small structure. Mark's teasing aside, she needed a moment or two alone. "Can you please make sure Jimmy looks decent?"
"Yes," he said as he kissed her cheek. "I'm available...anytime you need me."
"Thanks." She smiled up at him and then lifted the fabric of the tent entrance. She silently repeated words her mother used to say to her, "Happiness comes from a joyful heart." This was a place where she could be alone, get her thoughts together, and prepare for any last-minute touch-ups. Her hand released the material and the curtain fell into place. Laying her bouquet in a safe spot next to her makeup case, she let the tension ease of out of her body. The solitary moment brought calm as she sat down on the small stool, arranging her silk wedding dress so it didn't get dirty or too full of sand.
"Knock, knock," said a familiar voice from outside of the curtain. Her hands clenched together. There was just no "cone of quiet" for her today.
"Come in, Uncle David." When he didn't respond immediately, Aria repeated the words more loudly. "Uncle David, come in. I'm decent."
"I heard you, Aria. I was just watching your future husband get tackled on the sand by one of his friends and hauled off to the showers," replied David Kavanagh as he lifted the curtain and entered the small tent. "I didn't realize they would be arriving so late."
"Dan had a mission. With his job, he doesn't always have control of his schedule." She said it matter-of-factly. The last-minute entrance of her husband-to-be was stressing her out a bit. She knew he'd be there. Dan was a man of his word. But the Navy could sometimes be unpredictable. When Jimmy had said he saw them arrive, she'd let go of some of the stress. Now she had to contend with her own butterflies.
"Bunches of people are sitting out there already." Uncle David's black tuxedo was covered in places with clumps of sand and dried bits of seaweed. Obviously, he'd lost his footing and landed on his butt when coming down the dune.
"I saw them." She pointed at the mess, and he began brushing it off.
"I think I got it all," he said as he stopped fussing with the sand. Sitting on the stool across from her, he stared at her for several seconds as if he wanted to say something. Then two fingers touched his brow briefly before dropping to his lap.
"I'm not good at this." His hand landed abruptly on her shoulder-this was meant to be comforting-and then he thought better of it and placed both of his hands on his lap, mirroring her posture and position.
"It's okay, Uncle David." But it wasn't. She wanted him to share a morsel of wisdom. He was never a man of many words, though. What could he offer?
When at last he spoke, his voice traveled across the small expanse, sounding overly loud and very nervous. "M-m-must be a trick to walking on the sand. Why anyone would leave the pine needles and fertile earth of Vermont for the heat and sand of California is beyond me. Are you sure about this...wanting to get married...to Dan?"
"Yes, Uncle David. I love him. Be happy for me." Her mother's brother had been thrilled about her going across the country to college, getting a job, and staying here. He always said, "My Aria's a go-getter, and she cannot stifle her Scottish spirit for anyone." Secretly, though, she suspected it had been hard on him to watch her go and see her really move on from life in the small town of Dorset, Vermont. She couldn't stay a child or a theater rat forever. Now she was an advertising consultant with a thriving clientele and deeply in love with a man who made her life feel complete.
She could dream of adventures with Dan...or just revel in the warmth of him as he embraced her. He was the man she'd never realized could be real. So perfect!
"Right, right. Of course, I am. I'm very happy for you," he huffed. She wanted him to hold her gaze, to really be there, to tell her everything was great and that Dan was perfect for her. Instead, her uncle-her only living relative, besides her little brother-glanced around the small tent. "Not much of a space to prepare for your wedding. I could have contributed, gotten you something a little better."
"It's fine. I've never needed very much." She plucked a few grains of sand off her lap and dropped them on the ground next to her.
"It's important to be surrounded by people you care about on your wedding day." Uncle David finally stopped looking around and held her gaze. Color flushed in mottled tones on his pale cheeks. "I know this isn't really the time. Or maybe it is...and I should have prepared some words of wisdom." He scratched his bald scalp and then waved his hands in front of him as if shooing away a disruptive image. "I'm too nervous. I don't know what to say. Your parents should be here." He sighed. "Aria, they would have been so proud of you-for graduating with honors, for marrying someone you love, and for going out there and getting on with your life. They'd want me to tell you...that you did it...did it right."
Tears welled up in her eyes. That was the message she craved! She'd needed to hear his heartfelt words. She would have sacrificed anything for her parents to be here right now. To have her father walk her down the aisle and to have had her mother to help her plan the wedding and to answer all the questions she had about the union she was about to enter into. But none of that could happen. Even after all these years, she hadn't fully reconciled herself to their deaths.
Pulling the lace handkerchief out that she'd tucked into her cleavage, she dabbed her eyes and nose. Please, God, don't let me bawl. I'll never stop...
Aria swallowed the knot of emotion and gave him a hearty nod. "Thanks, Uncle David. I appreciate the sentiment." She could follow her heart. She could buck up and get married. This was what she needed and wanted...to be with Dan for now and always.
Awkwardly, she leaned over and hugged her Uncle David. He smelled like almond soap and peanuts.
Drawing back, she resettled herself. She didn't want to drop the train of her dress, and hers had never been a very physical interaction with her uncle. David was more the stoic type, one whose hugs were fierce and hurt a little and who never held either her brother or her. "I'm glad you're here."
She turned away and lifted a round handheld mirror to check her makeup. Everything pretty much looked okay. Her eyes were a little red, but her mascara and eyeliner were still in place. She freshened her satiny pink lipstick and then stowed her small bag. "I'm ready."
"Okay." Her Uncle David stood and offered his arm. "Let's go get 'em. Remember, I'm right here with you."
"Thanks." She took a deep breath and then stood. She held her bouquet to her nose, drawing in the fresh scent.
Taking her place beside her uncle, she accepted his waiting arm. It was time to walk the path...to be with her future husband. This was the first step on the way to the rest of her life. Nothing after the next few moments would ever be the same for either of them.