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The wedding of Max Cantrell and Jinni Fairchild took place at the Rumor Community Church on Saturday, November 1, at 7:00 p.m. Valerie Fairchild was her sister's attendant and Michael, Max's son, all decked out in a gorgeous dark suit comparable to his father's, was best man. It was Michael's first experience with a wedding, Jinni had confided, and Val sensed strong emotion behind the youth's rather swaggering exterior. Obviously, Michael preferred that no one know how touched he was by this very adult affair.
Val understood exactly how the boy felt. She, too, was emotional. She had to bat her lashes every few moments to hold back tears. She didn't want to cry at Jinni's wedding, she wanted to be happy and joyful and smiling. Growing up, the Fairchild sisters had not been close at all, but when Jinni dropped everything in New York and came to Rumor to help out during Val's chemotherapy treatments, it had been the most pleasant surprise of Val's life.
Now the sisters were very close, and the frosting on the cake was that Jinni had met Max Cantrell and they had fallen in love; Rumor, Montana, was now Jinni's home as much as it was Val's. It struck Val, while she stood there listening to Pastor Rayburn's kindly voice uniting her sister with the man she so dearly loved, that even when things looked darkest, there was often a ray of light on the horizon. Val's dark days had indeed been brightened by her sister's unexpected appearance. Jinni fairly glowed with her enjoyment of life, and she rarely had a negative word to say about anything. She had bolstered Val's spirits more times than Val could recall, and during their many conversations, hours spent talking and laughing, they had become true sisters.
"I now pronounce you man and wife," Pastor Rayburn said. Val sighed inwardly, feeling a spark of regret because the ceremony was over.
Max put his arms around his wife and kissed her. At that very moment, a wave of weaknessa backlash from her chemotherapy treatmentsstruck Valerie. No! she thought frantically. Not now! Given no choice in the matter, she sought someone to lean on. She took two shaky steps and grabbed Michael's arm. He looked at her as though she had sprouted horns.
"Bear with me," she whispered, comprehending his dismay. "I need to steal a bit of your strength just for a moment or two."
"Uh, sure," he said, then remembered that Jinni's sister wasn't well. In fact, when he thought about it, there had been several instances of conversation about Dr. Fairchild doing battle with cancer. Just thinking the word sent icy fingers up Michael's spine, but he would crumble to dust right where he stood before letting this nice woman know that he was so easily rattled.
The guests in the small church left their seats to congratulate the newlyweds. Val managed to kiss her sister's cheek, then Max's, and to wish them every happiness before the crowd got to them.
"I'm fine now, Michael," she told him. "Thanks for the use of your arm."
"You can hang on to my arm anytime you, uh, need to."
Val saw the red stains on Michael's cheeks and adored the boy for his response. He always acted so tough and uncaring, but underneath his bored-with-it-all expression, his practiced glower, he was a sweet young man.
"You're a dear," she said with a soft smile. "I think you and I might be related now. Let me see. Jinni is now your stepmom and I'm her sister, so I think that makes me your stepaunt. What do you think?"
"Yeah, could be," Michael mumbled.
Val wanted to laugh, but for Michael's sake she didn't. The boy was well aware of Jinni's new status. He didn't have to call her Mom, but legally she was his stepmother. Val knew for a fact that Jinni was thrilled at gaining a son along with a truly marvelous husband, but Val could only guess at how Michael perceived the quite serious change in his life. Jinni was positive, and had said to her sister that she and Michael were developing a great relationship.
The church hadn't been full; only a dozen or so guests had been invited, as the Cantrell family wasn't exactly riding high these days. Max's mother was there, and Val noticed Michael gravitating toward her. Mrs. Cantrell was torn, Val could tellhappy for her eldest son, Max, and worried for her younger son, Guy, who was in jail, awaiting trial for the murder of his deceased wife, Wanda, and her lover, Morris Templeton.
There was not going to be a wedding reception, either. The Cantrellswith Jinni presenthad discussed the event and decided that with Guy in such jeopardy they would eliminate any flamboyance. When the trial was over and Guy was freedthey were positive of the outcome, as they knew Guy could never harm, let alone murder, anyonethen they would throw a party that would knock the whole town's socks off. Jinni had ardently agreed with her future family.
While the newlyweds were kissed and congratulated by everyone, Val dodged bodies, went to a pew and sat by herself. Watching the gaiety at the front of the church spill into the center aisle, she realized how much Jinni's family had expanded in the past few minutes. Val's family consisted of one person, Jinni, while her sister had Max, Michael, Mrs. Cantrell and Guy.
Val sighed quietly. She would never be a bride. She couldn't force herself to let a man get close no matter how clever his attempts. She'd been hit on many times since that horrible long-ago experience that still haunted her dreams. The extended therapy she had undergone after the incident had helped, of course, but she'd known from her first session that she would never regain her old confidence and be the carefree, flirtatious woman she'd been before that terrifying day. Absorbed wisdom from the best therapist money could hire had made her more or less whole again but it had also destroyed her affection for the opposite sex. She liked men, as long as they kept their distance.
It wasn't something she talked about; it was just who she was these days, a sexless being with a good career, a handful of friends and a sister that she had come to love very much.
But who wouldn't love Jinni? Val asked herself. She was so alive, so vibrant and beautiful. Jinni brought life into any room she entered. Was it any wonder that Max had fallen in love with her? The good citizens of Rumor had never met a sparkling dynamo like Jinni Fairchild, and she'd taken the place by storm. Now, of course, she was one of the townsfolk, and Val would bet anything that once Jinni and Max settled into their marriage, Jinni would become Rumor's leading hostess.
It was a pleasing thought, and Val was smiling when Jim and Estelle Worth approached her. These wonderful people had started out as employees, helping out when Val became ill, and had evolved very quickly into good friends. Both Jim and Estelle were retired, Jim from the U.S. Forest Service and
Estelle from nursing. Jim was a big man with thick shoulders, a bit of a paunch and a full head of graying hair that would make many a younger man blanch in envy. Estelle was tall and thinher dark hair also grayingand so full of cheerful energy that she appeared to bounce from one task to another. This great sixty-something couple still worked for Val, Jim in the Animal Hospital and Estelle in Val's home, and Val could talk with ease to each of them. Not about herself, of course, or her disturbing past, but Jim and Estelle had become parental figures to her. She truly loved them both.
"What a precious wedding," Estelle said with a nostalgic sigh, as though recalling her own wedding. Jim stood behind her and grinned. Maybe he, too, was remembering.
"Val, you look beautiful in that dress," Estelle said. "And Jinni's gown? Oh, my, I've never seen such lovely dresses in all my days. Where did you say they came from?"
"From New York City, Estelle. Jinni knows the designer. She called her, described what she would like shipped out, and we received the dresses two days later."
"And they fit perfectly." Her comment was a statement, not a question.
"With a nip and a tuck here and there, yes." Val could see that people were starting to leave the church. Max and Jinni were planning to fly to California and honeymoon at a fabulous resort, and it was time they headed out.
"I'm going to say goodbye, then I'll be ready to go," Val murmured while getting to her feet.
"We'll wait in the car," Jim called. "Take your time."
"Thanks, Jim." Val hurried to the happy newlyweds. Max was talking to a tall, well-dressed man, and Val barely noticed either of them while she took Jinni's hand and said with teary eyes and a catch in her voice, "You are the most stunning bride this little church has ever seen. Jinni, what can I say, except thank you for everything you've done for me. I don't need to tell you to be happy, because you always are."
Jinni blinked back her own tears. "You can be happy, too, sweetie. You just have to look at the bright side of life. We both know it's there, Val, but sometimes it isn't out in the open. You have to do a bit of searching to find it. Now, kiss me and say goodbye. We have to get a move on if we're going to make our flight."
Smiling through her tears, Val kissed her sister's cheek, then turned to kiss Max. But instead of looking into Max's brilliant blue eyes she found herself looking into Reed King-sley's brilliant green eyes. She was so startled that she let out a small gasp.
"Hello, Valerie," he said calmly.
"Hello," she answered, and twisted a bit to plant a quick kiss on Max's cheek. "Have a wonderful honeymoon," she whispered, then backed away, turned and hurried down the aisle to the church's outer door. She was almost there, almost home free, when Reed caught up with her. He was a persistent cuss, obviously used to having his own way and unable to believe that a woman to whom he made overtures would not reciprocate. Val wasn't interested, and she wasn't about to explain to him or to any other man why she wasn't.
"Val, must you leave so quickly? Are you going straight home?" Reed asked, while visions of getting to know this unusual woman, really getting to know her, danced in his head one more time. He didn't normally have to chase a woman for months and months to get a few words out of her. He could already tell that she wasn't going to be any nicer to him tonight than she usually was.
She slanted a glance at him over her right shoulder. "Yes, I am. Good night."
She had succeeded in putting him down once again, and it didn't help that he'd been right about her apparently irrevocable attitude toward him.
"Val," he said quietly, "I only want to talk for a minute." He saw that his plea didn't move her, but he still held his breath until she spoke.
"I can't," she said coolly, politely. "Sorry, but the Worths are waiting in their car for me."
She left him standing there with a taken-aback look on his handsome face, which she dismissed with an annoyed toss of her head. He wasn't stupid, so why didn't he take the not-so-subtle hints she dropped every time they ran into each other? She hadn't known he would be at the wedding. Since he wasn't a close friend of Jinni's, he must be Max's business associate. Max, she knew from Jinni, had invited a few business buddies to the affair, the few who lived in the area.
Hell, maybe they played golf together. How would she know?
Val put Reed Kingsley out of her mind and walked to the Worths' car. As far as she was concerned, the evening was over. Jinni was married and her life with Max had already begun. It was a lovely thought, even if she didn't want the same thing for herself, Val conceded as she got into the car.
While Jim and Estelle took Val home, Reed, driving with a frown on his face, made a left on Main and considered stopping in at Joe's Bar, or maybe even pushing the envelope by going out to Beauties and the Beat strip joint. He nixed that idea almost at once; he would like some female company, but not with the gals who danced half-naked at the joint.
"Damn," he mumbled. This thing with Valerie Fairchild had crept up on him when he wasn't looking. He couldn't quite place the first time he'd seen her as a beautiful, sexy, desirable woman, but that seemingly irrevocable opinion had taken root without conscious direction from his brain. Now, it had grown into something that, considering Val's constant rejection, he'd be better off without.
The whole thing perplexed him. He had never been one to lose sleep over sex or romance or any other type of male-
female relationship. He liked womenwomen of all ages, for that matterand they liked him.
Except for Val. Why didn't she like him? Why, of all the women he knew, was she the one that had finally gotten under his skin? Was it because she played so hard to get?
"She's not playing at all," he muttered. "There's the problem." Rumor was a gossipy little town, and there was not one speck of gossip about Val and men, not old gossip, not new gossip. He'd wondered if her sexual preferences were with her own gender, but there wasn't any gossip about that, either. No, she was heterosexual, strikingly beautiful even if she did very little to enhance her looks, and simply didn't like him. She might be the one woman in his personal history who had truly gotten under his skin, but it was damn obvious that he hadn't gotten under hers.
Wasn't it time he called it quits? He'd had enough of Val's polite disregard of his very existence. There certainly was no shortage of available women in the area, and spinning his wheels over one who couldn't care less was utter nonsense. With that decision made, he told himself he already felt better.
But obviously he'd been driving on automatic pilothis mind a million miles awaybecause he was long past The Getaway, a spa on the outskirts of town, before he realized that he'd left Rumor and Joe's Bar in the dust. Fine, he thought. He didn't want to drop into Joe's, anyway. Making a U-turn, he drove back down Main to Kingsley Avenue and swung a right.
He was going home, and the whole damn town would be old and gray before he turned himself inside out to get Val Fairchild's attention again.