Thanks to the generous number of bathrooms and irons in the Preston house, Joe was able to clean up and shake out a suit to wear to the wedding. He hadn’t seen Kate all day, but her mother would periodically pop in to give updates. “The girls are getting their hair done,” she would say. “The girls are at the nail salon.”
Seemed to Joe they spent more time on the hair and makeup and whatever else it was they were doing than the wedding itself. He didn’t mind, though. He was suitably entertained by the Preston men—father, brother, cousins, and friends. First, there was the inspection of a broken rototiller. Next was a rousing debate about the possibilities of the Seattle Seahawks going All The Way next year. Joe had been in Seattle enough to be able to toss in a few thoughts about the NFL and the Seahawks, and as a result, was hailed as “a guy’s guy.”
Joe really liked these men. They were the sort of guys he would hang out with, go to games with, get a beer with. It would be something he could look forward to, if it weren’t for one small problem: Kate would be leaving soon.
The situation with Kate was difficult to think about on such a festive day. They’d shared a really weird and fabulous few days, but how could it ever be anything more than something to regale his friends with in the years to come? It wasn’t as if either of them would give up a job based on one long weekend. Joe thought he understood how these things went—you meet, you hook up, you go on with life. What other choice did he have? He’d allow himself a couple of days of moping about it, but what more could he do?
He told himself to have a good time tonight. Make it count. And then go on with your life.
He told himself that right up to the moment he saw Kate walking down the aisle in what was perhaps the ugliest dress he’d ever seen. It was a color not found in nature. It was wrinkled, and one half was less poufy than the other. But the remarkable thing about that dress was not how ugly it was, but how fantastic Kate made it look.
In a word, wow. She looked gorgeous with her hair swept up and ribbons cascading down her back. In spite of the condition of the dress, it fit her beautifully, hugging every curve. To Joe, Kate looked more beautiful than the bride, more beautiful than the flowers that adorned every pew and that altar. She was… everything. Everything that came to his mind when he thought of the perfect woman.
On the arm of some sad sack as she glided down the aisle, she caught sight of Joe and her face lit with a brilliant smile. Joe felt the warmth of that smile trickle down his spine, slide into his limbs, his fingers and toes, and warm his chest like an atomic glow.
He grinned back at her, and as she moved past, she gave him a subtle wink that made him as happy as a puppy. He was admiring her slender back as she walked by and almost missed the strange yellow-brown stain at the hem of the fluffy gown. And the wrinkled sash.
His smile went even deeper.
He didn’t actually hear much of the ceremony, as his entire being was focused on Kate. He couldn’t take his eyes from her.
Joe rode with Mr. Preston to the reception. It was in an industrial building, but the inside had been decorated to resemble what Joe guessed was a Southern plantation, with wispy sheers of silk draped overhead, a pergola dripping in fake wisteria over the bridal table, and tall, skinny floral arrangements bursting with lilies and more silk wisteria gracing the center of each table.
“Joe, over here!” Mrs. Preston called to him from near the buffet. She had dressed in a shade of peach for the occasion. “We’ve put you next to Kate,” she said, and leaned in next to him. “We had to move Aunt Emily, but she’ll be sleeping in her soup anyway,” she confided. She pointed to a seat at the bridal table.
“I don’t want to displace anyone,” Joe said.
“Trust me, Aunt Emily will be happier sitting with the Bergers. I don’t know about them…” She smiled. “Help yourself to champagne punch. The bridal party should be here any moment.”
Joe did as she suggested. He was chatting it up with another of Kate’s cousins when the bridal party arrived, streaming in like peach-colored ribbons.
Joe watched as Kate stopped to greet people she knew, hugging one or two tightly, laughing with another. When she finally reached him, he handed her a glass of champagne punch.
“Wow,” she said, beaming up at him. “You look so nice, Joe Firretti.”
“And you, Kate Preston,” he said, lifting his glass, “are stunning.”
“Oh, stop,” she said with fake modesty, and twirled around in the dress, almost knocking over a candelabra in the process. “What do you think?”
“I think,” he said, looking down at the dress, “that it is the ugliest, most hideous, god-awful poufy piece of taffeta in the history of the world,” he said, repeating the words she’d said to him in Dallas.
Kate burst out laughing.
“But I think it’s hanging on one of the most gorgeous women I have ever seen.”
Her smile was glowing. “Thank you,” she said, curtsying. “You’re just being nice.” She touched her glass to his. “But I’m still going to memorize everything you just said and repeat it to myself several times a day.”
“I mean it. You’re beautiful,” he said solemnly.
Kate’s smile melted into something he understood. He was feeling the same regret and happiness, the same joy and sadness that he saw shimmering in her eyes.
Uncle Frank bumped into them at that moment and grabbed Kate up in a bear hug, giving her what Joe thought was an alarmingly rough shake in the process, yet Kate just laughed.
They were invited to be seated. Joe helped Kate into her chair and slid into his just as the happy couple arrived to rousing applause, holding each other’s hands. As they dined on filet of beef, the couple was toasted with champagne for a lifetime of happiness.
Then it was Kiefer’s turn to speak. “I’m not very good at this,” he said, taking the mic and standing. “But as a lot of you know, I’ve been around awhile.”
Someone in the back hooted at that, and Kiefer laughed. “Keep it down back there, Bryan. So anyway, I’ve been around awhile. I’ve had my fair share of relationships, but you know, I knew something was different when I met Lisa. I don’t know if I could put a word to it, but I knew, deep down, that she was The One. To my beautiful bride,” he said, and leaned down to kiss her.
In the midst of a lot of oohing and aahing and cries of “Hear, hear,” Joe and Kate exchanged a look. He saw the blush come up in her cheeks and felt a strange little swirl of recognition in his gut.
“My turn!” Lisa said loudly, and several people chuckled. She took the mic from her husband. “As several of you know, I almost killed Kiefer this week.”
The crowd laughed.
“But honestly, I can’t imagine life without him. My hope is that everyone here gets to experience the love we have for each other.” She suddenly turned and looked directly at Kate and Joe. “Right, Kate?” she asked, and the crowd laughed again.
“Oh my god, she didn’t just do that, did she?” Kate muttered under her breath to Joe.
“She did,” he muttered back.
When the speeches were done and the toasts concluded, the band began to play. Everyone gathered around the dance floor and watched Lisa dance with her father, then with Kiefer. They swayed back and forth, sharing a private laugh.
When everyone was invited to join the dance, Joe looked at Kate and held out his hand. “Do you dance?”
“Do I dance!” she said, as if she danced for the ballet, and slipped her hand into his. “Not really.”
Joe laughed. “Then that makes two of us.”
He led her out onto the dance floor, took her hand and tucked it in between them, pulled her in close, and began to move.
“Hey,” Kate said as they moved languidly around the dance floor. “You’re a good dancer. I would not have guessed that about you.”
There was so much about him that she didn’t know, that he wished she knew. “What? Didn’t you see me leap over the rope at the Hertz counter?”
“That was more like a hurdle,” she reminded him.
“You’re not so bad yourself,” he said. There was an easy grace to her. “By the way,” he said, “I finished your book.”
She gasped with surprise; her eyes glittered happily. “When?”
“This afternoon. I had a little downtime.”
“So what did you think?”
“Want to know the truth?” he asked.
Her smile faded a little. “Yes,” she said. “I do.” She looked as if she expected him to say something disparaging.
“I didn’t want it to end,” Joe said. “Don’t look that surprised,” he said, laughing at her shocked expression. “I liked those two. I wanted to know what happened after they resolved everything. What their children looked like, if she ever sorted things out with her mother.”
Kate looked so happy, and Joe liked that he had made her look that way. “I did. I don’t think I am going to break my lifelong habit of sticking to magazines and tech manuals, but yes, I really enjoyed it and didn’t want it to end. Do you ever feel that way?” he asked, referring to the books she edited.
Something flickered in Kate’s gaze. “Yes,” she said. “Actually, I’m sort of feeling that way now.”
Joe sighed and pulled her in a little closer. “Me too, baby.”
“You know, some might argue that this thing between us doesn’t have to end, but…” Her voice trailed off. She looked a little hopeful, and that made Joe uneasy.
“But I’m here, at a new job,” he said. “And you’re in New York.”
“And long distance never really works, does it?” she said sadly.
“Even if it did, east coast-west coast is not an easy distance to work with.”
The music was ending. Kate glanced down and nodded. “I just wish… I just wish you weren’t such a great guy, Joe Firretti. I wish you’d turned out to be the armrest hog from hell, you know?”
Joe couldn’t help but laugh. “I kind of wish I had, too,” he said. He didn’t like feeling as helpless and hopeless as he was right now. But he was determined not to let the evening end on a somber note. “Let’s make the best of tonight.”
Kate’s smile returned. “What’d you have in mind?”
“Champagne to start. Then you, naked. Me, admiring you, naked.” He grinned, his body stirring at just the suggestion.
“I think that could be arranged,” she said coyly. “But we have to be careful. My parents have the ears of donkeys. And you might have to jackhammer me out of this dress.”
“That,” he said, leaning forward, putting his mouth to her temple, “will be my great pleasure.”
At half past two in the morning, Joe was lying on a cot in the library at the Preston house, his arms folded behind his head. He’d given up on Kate and figured she’d gotten cold feet in her parents’ house.
But then he heard the door. He sat up, saw her slip into the library wearing a flannel pajama top that came to the top of her thighs. She closed the door very carefully behind her, then tiptoed quickly across the floor and hopped on top of him. She instantly covered his mouth with her hand. “Shhh,” she whispered.
Joe nodded, slipped his hand under her top, and closed his eyes as his fingers slid over smooth, warm skin. Kate began to kiss him, sinking down onto his body, her hands sliding through his hair, down his side.
Joe had the hazy thought that this was what it was supposed to be like, that the times before Kate had been nothing, just diversions, a passing of time. And when he entered her, and slid into that state of pure, pleasurable oblivion, he could think only that this was right, this was so right.
So right that it was screwed up.