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Rey needed to sit down.
No one else knew it, but Miles could tell.
He'd been watching ReyReniasince before the ceremony. Cathy, already in her gown with makeup and hair done, had dragged him over to get their photo taken. He'd protested the entire walk down the church hallway, feeling more like Cathy's recalcitrant child than her ex-husband, as she pulled him along by his arm. His smug feeling at having convinced Cathy she couldn't go into the sanctuary to get the photographer vanished the instant Rey turned around and he looked into those large brown eyes.
He'd dreamed about those haunting, sad eyes all through high school.
Vows said and bubbles blown, Rey was still smiling at every wedding guest who came up to her and asked for a photo, putting her hand on their backs and nodding. She would guide them to the beautiful stained glass window or the dark wood of the pews, patiently pose them and snap the photo. By the time the camera clicked on one posed group, another set of wedding guests would be waiting to have their picture taken, then another.
The ceremony was over and guests had an hour to kill until the reception officially started. People were starting to get twitchy, so Cathy had taken it upon herself to offer up Rey's talent to them and Rey, with a cool smile that didn't quite make it to her eyes, was playing along.
Did she know he was watching her? Probably not. Rey hadn't noticed him when she'd seen him every day for a year and a half and she hadn't recognized him when he'd stood in front of her lens with his ex-wife. He'd either changed so much since high school that he was completely unrecognizable, or Rey's glances at him in English class had never been long enough for her to create a memorable mental image of him.
Miles shook his head at his ego. She'd looked through him in high school and was looking through him now. If he hadn't learned how to stand up straight when uncomfortable under the stare of the toughest drill sergeant ever to run basic training, he'd have ducked his head like an embarrassed boy and stammered his way through the photo session.
Every grown man dreams of collapsing into an awkward heap in front of both his high school crush and his ex-wife. Cathy had given him a bump on the hip when they were having their picture takenshe'd known him long enough to know something was up.
Maybe he should have spent the ceremony watching his ex-wife marry the man of her dreams or admiring his daughter standing in her maid-of-honor dress with her head held high and back straight. The ceremony was touching. Every guest, even his mother, was crying. She loved Cathy.
But, instead of watching the wedding, he'd concentrated on Rey in her light gray pantsuit and camera at her face. She managed to take pictures at all the important parts of the ceremony while blending into the background. The guests never seemed to notice her or the camera as it clicked away.
He was certain the wedding photographer was the Rey he'd loved from afar so many years ago. Unrequited teen love had meant her face was etched into his brain and nothingnot even twelve years of marriagehad been able to erase the image. But time had done more than age her. It had changed her.
The Rey he remembered from high school had been impossible not to notice. Tight white tank tops had invited every teen boy in Chicago to look, and skirts that barely covered her ass had encouraged them to touch. Only her eyes had hinted there might be a softer, less dangerously sexual teenager under all the makeup. Now, she was an elegant woman with chestnut hair tied in a fat bun and delicate gold hoops hanging from her ears.
But the sad eyes remained.
"Miles, are you ready to walk over to the reception?"
He turned at his mom's voice to find her standing with Sarah, forcing his attention back to his daughter. At sixteen, she was still playing around with her identity, but every once in a magic while, she would express an opinion so clearly her own that Miles wanted to pull her into his arms and hug her until she remembered she was still his little girl.
Parenthood still scared the shit out of him, even after sixteen years of practice.
Sarah stood with her head held higher than a queen in the maid-of-honor dress she'd picked out. Cathy had given Sarah free rein over the dress and never uttered a word of panic when Sarah had shown her pictures of slinky things a sixteen-year-old would confuse for sexy and grown-up. After letting Cathy stew silently in her own terror, Sarah had chosen a knee-length dress that bridged the gap between little girl and woman. It was the deep red of a Bing cherry, with short, fluttering sleeves, and she looked beautiful in it.
He thanked God every day that Sarah was still a touch too gangly, and her teeth were still a bit too big for her face, for the boys to notice her yet. He wasn't ready to be the dad with the shotgun greeting his daughter's dates.
And he thanked Cathy that Sarah was still wearing clothes that covered most of her body and only her ears were pierced. Sarah was a good girl.
Where had Rey's mother been when she was Sarah's age? Everyone at school knew her father, grandfather and younger brother had died in a horrible car accident. But her mother had still been around and yet she certainly hadn't kept Rey from wearing midriff-baring tops and piercing her belly button, much less keep her daughter from spending every Friday and Saturday night at some party or club.
Miles had never seen her do one of her famous stripteases at a partyhe'd never been cool enough to be invitedbut the naval piercing was no rumor; he'd seen it with his own eyes. The twinkling stud had been the object of many of his teen fantasies.
Rey had been only a little younger than Sarah was now when he had first seen her, and he'd fallen in love with the belly piercing. God, Rey'd been so young. Now a father of a teenager, Miles wanted nothing more than to go back in time and whack upside the head every boy who'd ever handed her a beer and asked her to take off her shirt. He couldn't imagine Sarah dressed like a young Rey and he hoped his daughter would never face the same rumors. He shuddered.
Then one day, Rey had just disappeared. Her mother, sister and older brother had still been around. Her grandmother had still sat at the cash register at the family's restaurant. But Rey had evaporated. No one knew where she went or, if they did, they weren't talking.
"Miles, are you all right?"
"Sorry, Mom. I'm just caught up in the moment." He'd never expected to see Rey again, and certainly not at Cathy's wedding. "We should head to the reception."
He kissed his mother on her dry cheek and turned to Sarah. She had Cathy's large brown eyes. "You look lovely, honey."
"Thank you, Dad. You know you've told me that several times." She tried to look sophisticated and mature, but a father knew when his daughter was secretly enjoying compliments.
"And I've meant it every time. I'm your father. I get to tell you you're beautiful whenever I want."
Sarah beamed all the way to the white flowers in her hair, even while she fidgeted with the pearls at her neck. Richard had given her the set of pearls before the wedding. Smart man, Richard. Smart to marry Cathy and smart to give Sarah the pearls. He deserved Cathy. God knew Miles didn't.
"Dad, if we don't leave now, we'll be late," Sarah said, her words rushed.
Miles didn't respond. They wouldn't be late. Receptions always started late, but Sarah didn't know that. He offered his elbows to the two most important women in his life and turned to leave the chapel.
Renia needed to sit down.
Instead of sittingor doing the job she was being paid forshe was stuck trying to get the bride to stop worrying whether or not she, the wedding photographer, got dinner.
"Are you sure you don't need a bite to eat? I'd be happy to get you a plate."
"I'm fine." Luckily, her belly didn't growl to prove her a liar. "I don't eat while working." That's what PowerBars scarfed down on the walk from the ceremony to the reception were for.
In hindsight, Renia knew she should have worked harder to get a second shooter for the wedding, but all her favorites had been booked. Live and learn. An exploding bladder was more likely than starvation at this point. Maybe she could follow Cathy to the ladies' room for an arty photo of the bride reapplying lipstick, then slip into a stall before she missed more good shots.
"You'll at least have some cake," a male voice said. The groom, Richard, came up behind his new wife and took her elbow. When she looked at her new husband, Cathy's smile was so lovely that somewhere the Grinch's stone heart was cracking. Renia tried not to make predictions about the couples she worked for, but Cathy and Richard were forever.
Of course, if Cathy were off being the bride and not trying to feed the photographer, Renia could have gotten that look on camera. At the range she was in now, the lens would capture only a nose and maybe some lip.
"I'll make sure the caterers save some cake for me." She gestured to the food tables and made a shooing motion with her hands. "Go, be a bride. Chat with your guests. Dance. I can't get good pictures with you standing next to me."
"Of course. I'll let you get back to your job."
A couple of times, Renia had wondered if the pretty maid of honor could really be Cathy's daughter. It was like learning the Virgin Mary had more than one childa woman so innocent and sweet didn't have sex. During the reception, Cathy was taking care of her guests, making sure everyone was enjoying their dinner and entertaining bored children. If she wasn't so nice, Renia would hate her.
Of course, the world was full of ifs.
She watched as the new couple wove through the large round tables, arm in arm, leaning into one another and whispering. In a room full of people, Cathy and Richard were secluded in their love for each other. What would it be like to have someone in your life that you felt so comfortable with? Renia had wondered the same thing while watching her sister, Tilly, and her boyfriend. The emptiness was about to take over when Renia lifted her camera and snapped a picture.
As she lowered her camera, the skin on her back pricked and she turned to find a man looking at her. The bride's ex-husband. She'd taken the pair's picture before the ceremony, surprised that the Ex was at the wedding and seemed to genuinely wish the new couple well. At weddings, there was always something surprising, though not always something so nicely surprising.
The man smiled at her and raised his champagne glass in a little salute. Renia smiled back and took a photo of him.
Through the lens, Renia was reminded again that something about him was familiar. He was handsome, but she saw a lot of handsome men at weddings. He had short-cropped brown hair and intense ice-blue eyes that sparkled with his slow smile. She glanced at him again, this time without the camera's protection. It wasn't the hair or the gaze that felt familiar; it was the set of his features. The Ex had an angular jaw and heavy eyebrows that kept his face just shy of boyish. That combination of features pulled at some distant memory stored in her brain.
She shook her head before whoever the Ex reminded her of could intrude. The Ex's doppelganger probably had the starring role in a moment during her troubled years that she preferred to ignore.
Before she got sucked into her past and the regret that came with it, she put her camera back up to her face and took more pictures. Photography had helped her forget before.
She photographed the father of the bride leaning in to kiss the mother of the bride, and one of the flower girls arranging the food on her plate into a smiley face. These were the memories that made a wedding album something couples looked at long after the white dress had yellowed.
Renia specialized in capturing these moments. Although she took a lot of pictures, she seemed to have a sixth sense about when those special moments were about to occur. She'd feel a tingle in the air that would make her slow down, turn her head and wait for the memory to happen. It was one of the reasons why Aunt Maria had been willing to deal with her for that first, awful year.
Wandering around the tables, she continued snapping pictures. This wedding was full of energy and excitement. The whole atmosphere pulsed with love. Even the teenagers who had been wearing scowls as they walked through the chapel doors were now laughing with their parents and teasing their siblings. Cathy and Richard were in love and the emotion had rubbed off on every guest.
"They love each other so much. Isn't it beautiful?"
The Ex. She knew it was him before she turned around. It wasn't her photographic sixth sense, but some pull on her emotions when he started talking.
"It is. Is it hard to be here?" Normally she wouldn't discuss the couple with a guest, but he'd asked her first.
His mouth curved up and he looked like he was about to shift his weight from foot to foot when something glued him to the floor. He didn't smile, but he didn't scowl, either. She wasn't sure what the expression on his face meant. "I suppose you must be used to emotion at a wedding."
She turned back to the room, ignoring his nonanswer. How he felt about Cathy and Richard wasn't her business, anyway. "Weddings aren't always this perfect."
An unfortunate side effect of her career was that Renia no longer believed in the magic of weddings. She still believed in love, but not the perfect white dress and dance with Dad that made all the guests cry.
"No?" The Ex raised an eyebrow. "And what are they always like?"
"Oh, I've seen a drunk priest or two."
His short laugh indicated he knew her answer was a blow-off. She'd been to weddings where the brides were crying as their mothers talked them into a marriage when they really should have mimicked a white dove, flying for freedom outside the church instead of caging themselves with the man standing at the altar. There had also been several nearly puking-with-nerves grooms, too many creepy uncles to count and one memorable wedding with a lipstick-stained wedding dress the bride wore down the aisle. Renia didn't tell those stories because one didn't stay in the wedding business by spreading tales of matrimonial disasters to guests.
"Any good Bridezilla stories?" the Ex asked.
"Not that I share with strangers."
Her head snapped back to face him at his wry tone. The corner of the Ex's mouth was cocked up and he'd raised an eyebrow at her. She didn't know what the little noise he made in the back of his throat was about.
"Well then, I'm Miles Brislenn," he said, introducing himself.
"I'm working." She ignored his outstretched hand. "No time for a dance?"
What was it with this family and trying to treat her like a guest at the wedding? "Still working." Renia smiled because this was a wedding, she was the paid help and he was the guest. Her job was to capture beautiful moments on camera, even if she had to force them. But someone else was responsible for making sure the Ex behaved.
"Cathy won't mind," he insisted.
"But I will."
"Mind dancing with me? You don't know me well enough to know if you'd mind dancing with me."