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The hardest thing to explain, either to herself or others, was that she had no aversion to weddings as such. There was, in fact, lots to enjoy about them. Right now, Cressa was taking malicious glee in watching her cousin Jake, usually the supercool surfie, straighten his vest for the third time in as many minutes as he stood on the deck of the sleep-out, waiting for his bride to emerge from the main house.
As for the setting of this wedding, it was perfect. A house on the beach in Aroha BayBay of Love. What could be more fitting? The harbor provided the backdrop for the groom, best man and celebrant, with winter sunlight reflecting off the tranquil high tide. Behind the guests, tables with white cloths, laden with plates and glasses, had been positioned under trees festooned with streamers. Fairy lights had been threaded through the branches, ready for the night's entertainment. Cressa had never seen the old house look so festive.
Even the weather was behaving unexpectedly well for an outside wedding, and had provided one of those wonderful Northland midwinter days of blue skies and blue sea. All the guests gathered on the lawn below the sleep-out were wearing sunglasses and many had shrugged off their jackets in the unexpected warmth.
Cressa also loved a good party, and all her favorite people in the world were clustered around her at this one. She glanced affectionately at her parents and her four sisters, Juliet, Portia, Desdemona and Katherine.
"Really, Cressa," muttered her mother. "I do wish you hadn't worn black."
Cressa looked down at the leather miniskirt she'd found in a secondhand shop and the satin top with spaghetti straps, and grinned inwardly. What would a family gathering be without Ma finding something about her to criticize?
"You should be glad I'm not wearing my boots," she hissed back.
She'd foregone her ancient Doc Martens in favor of a pair of high-heeled shoes borrowed from Des, the baby of the family and its fashionista. The shoes were a nuisance, though, because the heels kept getting stuck in the lawn.
Her thoughts returned to weddings and she wondered about the nature of love. People, she was sure, married for all sorts of reasons. Perhaps there was the fear of living alone forever. Maybe they simply confused sex or friendship with something more. And let's face it, after a certain age, going to parties and dinners was way easier to do as part of a couple than as a single person.
Yet Cressa had to admit that denying the whatever-it-was that had such a tangible effect on people was hard. She eyed her cousin. Jake could surf deadly ninety-foot walls of water, yet here he was, as jumpy as a kitten, running his fingers through tousled tawny curls for the umpteenth time as he leaned over to say something to his best man, Rob. Rob shot him a big-brother grin, patted his tuxedo pocket and gave a thumbs-up to indicate that yes, he still had the ring.
"What's keeping Sass?" demanded Des in a whisper that carried to the guests, causing some to glance around. "We've been waiting ages."
As if on cue, the opening chords of Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" erupted from the speakers suspended from the branches of the pohutukawa tree. Everyone turned and a collective sigh rose from the crowd. Sass looked lovely in an ivory dress that hugged her trim midriff, then flared from her hips. Her blond hair was loose and she carried a simple bouquet.
Cressa was certainly not immune to the sight of a beautiful bride. Tears pricked her eyes as she watched Sass make her way down the steps, her mother beside her. She appeared composed and confident, and as she gazed across the guests to Jake, a dazzling smile lit her face. Their union did seem, Cressa had to concede, very much like true love.
Given all the advantages she could see in weddings, her misgivings must therefore have their root in the happily-ever-after bit, she concluded thoughtfully. She just didn't buy that. And if one really did live in marital bliss forever, well, where was the fun and adventure? It sounded like Sunday-school heaven: serene, beautiful and mind-numbingly boring.
With a deep breath and an inward sigh, Cressa straightened, bracing herself to listen to vows that would lock her dashing cousin and his beautiful, strong-minded Texan wife in bland matrimony for the rest of their lives. But just as Sass reached the steps of the deck, the throaty roar of a motorcycle drowned out the music.
Bride forgotten, all heads whipped around to watch as the bike plunged down the steep driveway at a suicidal pace, swerved just in time around a pothole, only to hit a root. The bike launched and flew through the air for the last few yards before landing with a thump and skidding to a halt in front of the stunned gathering. The rider killed the engine and eased back in the saddle, looking blankly at the guests through his visor as though taken aback to suddenly be the center of attention. "Adam!"
Sass abandoned her husband-to-be and rushed over to hug the man as he swung off the bike.
"Is that the brother?" whispered Juliet.
"Must be," Portia muttered.
"They're completely different," said Katherine, pointing out the obvious when the man removed his helmet and enfolded his sister and then his mother in great bear hugs, his black hair and olive skin contrasting sharply with their fairness.
"Wow! He's gorgeous," Des murmured. "I bet he's an Eastern European spy."
Cressa smiled, remembering the silly game they used to play when sitting in the mall as teenagers. "Or a Mississippi steamboat gambler," she whispered back.
"Oh, yeah!" Des fanned her cheeks with her hands, as Juliet cast them a withering look.
Juliet's demeanor was another strike against marriage. Since her wedding to Mike a year earlier, she had become exceedingly dull company. Cressa had skipped that wedding because Brian had been Mike's best man. Even Ma had agreed that Cressa's absence might be the best option. Mike was away at a conference this weekend, and Cressa supposed Brian was there, too.
"Adam!" Jake vaulted off the deck and strode across the grass to shake his brother-in-law's hand. "We thought you'd never make it after your flight was delayed."
"Well, there was this real helpful ground attendant " His voice was warm and deep, with the same slow Texan drawl as his sister's.
"Around Adam there always is," said Sass resignedly. "What was her name?"
Her brother just smiled. "She found a spare seat on a different airline and voila." He turned to Jake. "Tell me I'm not too late to give Sass away. I'd hate to miss the opportunity of a lifetime." He looped an arm around his sister and squeezed. "No one else would be rash enough to take her on."
Sass whacked him with her bouquet. "I might have known that even at my wedding you'd find a way to upstage me." She tucked a hand into his arm. "Come on, you've arrived just in time."
Amid laughter and the buzz of comments, someone got the music going again and the Texan siblings waited for Jake to return to the deck before they walked arm in arm through the crowd as it parted for them. The brother passed so close to Cressa she could have put out her hand and touched him, but his attention was on his sister as he beamed down at her. Sass's blond hair and classical looks made her brother's dark features even more dramatic. They mounted the steps of the deck and Cressa noted he was almost as tall as her cousin. Adam bent his head and kissed Sass's cheek, before placing her hand in Jake's. Then he stepped aside and the ceremony began.
Despite thinking she was completely over her own wedding-that-never-was, and despite her rationalization of the whole marriage scene, Cressa began to feel slightly sick as the ceremony progressed. Marriage-a-phobia? She couldn't flee and disgrace herself a second time. Think about something else.
She focused on Sass's brother. Adam. Nice name. Very Genesis. His thick black hair fell straight to his collar, and even though she could see only part of his face, his hawkish nose and knife-blade cheekbones were striking.
He'd handled his bike like a pro. She should know, having nearly hurtled off her own bike when going too fast down that treacherous driveway full of ruts and stones. How long was he staying in New Zealand?
She was dimly aware of soft Texan vows entwining with the more staccato Kiwi ones, so she deliberately turned her thoughts to the bike. She guessed it was a 600. She'd always wanted to try something that big. She looked back at Adam. Would he let her take it for a ride? After all, they were family now. She screwed up her face as she tried to determine the relationship. He was the brother of her cousin-in-law, which would perhaps make them cousins-in-law once removed. Twice, if you took in national differences.
"I now pronounce you man and wife."
The words rang out, snapping her back to the proceedings. As Jake gathered the new Mrs. Finlayson in his arms to kiss her, another audible sigh went up from the crowd. Cressa glanced at her parents and saw they were staring goofily into each other's eyes, as if remembering their own wedding day, and she was surprised to find her formidable mother quite tearful. Cressa was less surprised by her sisters.
"That was so beautiful," said Juliet, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.
"I know," sniffed Des, wiping her tears away with the back of her hand. "Why do weddings always make one cry?"
"Because they mark the end of freedom, that's why," Cressa said darkly.
Portia gave a watery chuckle, but Katherine rolled her eyes. "Oh, Cressa!" She turned to the others. "Come on, let's go congratulate the bride."
Her family abandoned her and started pushing through the crowd surrounding the newly married couple, but Cressa slipped away and drifted over to the bike. It was a KTM 640 Motard, a lovely beast, and she ran a hand tenderly over the seat.
"In Texas we shoot horse rustlers." The deep, slow voice made her spin around. "You got designs on my bike?"
He was even more gorgeous close up, his face all swooping planes and dark hollows. He looked tired which wasn't surprising, since he'd just stepped off a transPacific flight, then ridden three hours northbut he was still alert.
"I do," she admitted. "I was wondering if you'd let me take it for a spin."
His interest sharpened. "You ride bikes?"
"I've got a GPX250."
"Yeah?" He nodded approvingly. "That's a tidy little bike."
She snorted. "Little? She'd give your monster a run for its money on the roads around here."
They were mostly unfinished, and Cressa had first learned how to ride a motorbike on the twisting, back-country roads.
Adam surveyed her. "Is that a challenge?"
She stuck her fists on hips and eyeballed him. "Damn straight it is," she said. "My bike's back at the motel, but if you're here tomorrow "
She watched a smile slowly spread across his face.
"Do you always pick on bikes twice your size?" he asked.
"Well, you know what they say." She put on a leer and waggled her brows. "It's not the size that counts."
He laughed and stuck out his hand. "I'm Adam Walker. Pleased to meet you."
She took his hand. It was large and warm. "Hi, Adam. Actually, we're family now." His eyebrows rose. "I'm Jake's cousin Cressida, but everyone calls me Cressa."
Adam found it hard not to stare into her wide, gray-green eyes. She had the most direct gaze he'd ever seen in a woman, and her thick, dark hair fell to her ass. Her nose, long, strong and slightly hooked, dominated her face, lending her an imperious air. Right now she was blatantly checking him out.
"Cressida? As in Troilus and Cressida?"
"That's the one."
He frowned. "Strange play. I can't recall much of it apart from the dragging of the corpse at the end. I enjoyed that bit. Except, that wasn't Troilus, was it?"
She did a double take. "It was Hector, but I'm impressed. You've actually seen the play? It's not one of Shakespeare's better known ones."
"Way back when. I was only about fourteen then. Wasn't she kind of a bad apple?"
There was something almost wolfish in her grin, and he found himself grinning back. Then he became aware he was still holding on to her hand. She hadn't been in a hurry to claim it back, either. With some regret, Adam let it go. He was in New Zealand only to give his sister away and keep an eye on their mom while Sass was honeymooning. There was no room for flirting. All his time and energy during the next month had to be for studying.
He leaned against the bike as she asked, "How come you went to see the play at that age? Were you studying it at school?"
A gust of wind lifted her hair like a dark cloud around her. The impatient way she tucked it behind her ear suggested she had no idea how sexy it looked.
"My mom's an English teacher. She dragged me to every Shakespeare performance within a hundred miles of where we lived."
"Tell me about it! My dad's an actor. My little sister's first words were" she put on a baby's lisp "'Ith thith a dagger I thee before me?'"
He laughed and she joined in. Not that her performance had been that funny, but a weird energy fizzed between them and laughter was a way to express it or release it. Or something. Hell, must be jet lag heightening his senses and jumbling his thoughts this way.
"So where did the bike come from?"
"A rental. I picked it up at the airport once I found out no plane or bus would get me here in time."
She was only about five foot four, but she gave the impression of being taller. She had a nice bodycompact, curvy and toned.
"Hey, Adam!" Hearing his name shouted, he glanced away to find his brother-in-law gesticulating from the beach. Adam waved, then turned back to her. "Sorry, Cressa, gotta go. Time for photos. It was real nice meeting you."
She raised a hand in farewell. "See you later, cuzzie bro."
He'd begun to leave, but he stopped and looked back over his shoulder. "'Cuzzie bro'?"
She smiled. "It's a term we use in New Zealand for a loose family connection. You're one of us now."
As he walked away, Adam didn't know whether that warmed or alarmed him.