“I think you can trust her on that. She can be yours next time.”
“I doubt that’ll ever happen,” she said, looking down.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “You’re young. You even thirty yet? And beautiful. It’s just a matter of days, probably.”
She just sighed. “Imagine, Vanni finding two wonderful guys like that in such a short period of time. You knew Matt?”
“Very slightly. We grew up in the same town but went to different schools, and I didn’t serve with him. I met him through Paul later, after I started designing houses for Paul’s company. If Matt was on leave, home for a visit, we’d run into each other for a beer when he was out with Paul. Good man.”
“These all seem like good guys. Does this happen often? Gatherings like this?”
“It used to be a lot of hunting and fishing, but lately these old boys have been tying the knot a lot. First Jack, about two years ago. Then Preacher last year. Mike, just a few months ago. Now Paul. Bunch of bachelors who no one could catch, everyone real slow to find the right woman, then all of a sudden there’s a rush on. The only one who found his girl real early was Zeke—he’s been married since he was about seven. Four kids. Now it looks like I’m the last one left.”
“They’re all so good-looking. I mean, you’re all so good-looking—it’s pretty amazing you weren’t snapped up early.”
“That turned out to be my fatal mistake.” He laughed.
“How long have you been divorced?”
“Over ten years,” he said.
“I guess you’ve recovered your bachelorhood.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I guess. Can I get you anything? Something to drink, maybe?”
“No, thanks. I think I’ll just enjoy the stars.”
“Mind if I enjoy the stars with you for a while?” he asked her.
She looked at him and tilted her head slightly. His question finally coaxed a smile out of her, a real one, and he thought, damn. This girl is beautiful. “That would be nice, Joe.”
Jack was the first to leave when he noticed Mel was looking tired. He collected his son, said goodbye to his boys and took Mel out onto the porch. They passed Joe and Nikki and said good-night as they left. Next to leave was Brie, giving Mike a kiss good-night on the porch before walking across the yard to their RV. Paige disappeared for good as she tucked herself in with Christopher for the night—advanced pregnancy requiring rest. Next was Vanessa, out on the porch looking for Nikki. “Hey, you can stay as long as you like—there are plenty of people around to take you home.”
“I could do that,” Joe offered. “I’d be glad to do that.”
“No,” Nikki said. “A maid of honor’s work is never done.”
Finally it was the general and Tom. Rick walked outside with them. Tom shook his hand and said, “Come out to the house tomorrow. Bring your girl.”
“Thanks, I might just do that. But not till after the wedding. No way I can let Lizzie see a wedding.”
By the time Rick walked back into the room, the tables were pushed together, the cards were out and the cigars were being snipped. “Get over here, boy,” Zeke said. “Get out your money.”
Rick laughed. Someone pressed a cigar on him and he said, “God, do I have to smoke this ugly thing?”
“As long as you get your money out, you can do whatever you want.”
“I don’t have that much money, guys,” he complained, but he was sitting down.
“Don’t worry about it, kid. We’ll take whatever you’ve got.”
T he general’s house was a busy place on Saturday. The nuptials were scheduled for 4:00 p.m. with a party to follow. Sunday night would belong to Tom, his family and his girl since he’d be leaving early Monday morning.
Caterers arrived in the morning, setting up a trellis strung with white drape in the yard behind the house. Fifty folding chairs were unloaded, champagne chilled, flowers placed around the house and yard. Paul’s family arrived just after noon and his mother gratefully took charge of Mattie so the bride could primp. The general was happy to host the Haggerty men and Tom out on the deck while activity around the house and yard kept them out of those regions.
The next to arrive was Shelby. She drove up from Bodega Bay. It hadn’t been that long since her mother’s passing, but she was already changed; she’d dropped a few pounds, wore her shiny, honey-colored hair free, flowing down her back, and for the first time in years, she wore makeup. She looked so great that when Tom saw her, he grabbed her up in his arms and whirled her around, making her laugh. “Look at you,” he said. “What have you done to yourself?”
“Not so much,” she said, smiling. “I just have a little more time now, that’s all.”
“It’s more than that. You’re looking hot.”
“Thanks, honey,” she said. “That’s nice. I’ve never been hot in my life.”
Next it was Paul to lift her off the ground and make a fuss over her, and finally she was pulled into the circle of women with Vanni exclaiming over how wonderful she looked. The only one not surprised was Walt, who’d been making regular visits to Bodega Bay since his sister’s passing. As they were getting the house back into shape he’d been watching the slow and startling transformation of his niece as she found her footing, making her way into a new life.
Paul was showered before noon so he could clear out of the bathroom, finally putting on his suit at three, as did the best man and Walt. When the guests began to arrive, cold champagne was pressed into their hands as they were directed to the chairs in the yard. The minister, Harry Shipton of Grace Valley, was more than happy to accept his champagne with the rest of the gathering. Right at four, Vanessa and Nikki stepped out onto the deck from the house, making their way to the yard where the vows would be spoken.
Paul felt his knees almost buckle when he saw her. Now, he knew this was one fine-looking woman, and since he’d been the best man at her last wedding, it wasn’t as if he’d never seen her all dressed up. But it felt like the first time. She was usually found in jeans or a simple sundress, and in those she was almost too much for his heart. Today she was resplendent in green so pale it was nearly white. It was a shimmering, clingy silk, her reddish-gold hair lying in full curls on her shoulders and down her back. Her turquoise eyes were alive with love, sparkling brightly, and her peach lips were curved in a smile.
“Holy shit,” Tommy said. “Look at my sister, man.”
“I see her,” Paul croaked. “God above.”
Tom laughed. “Well, go get her,” he said, poking him in the ribs. “God, I hope I’m cooler than you when I get married.”
“Yeah,” Paul said in a weak breath. He unstuck his rooted feet and went to collect his bride and bring her into the gathering. She was greeted with lots of hugs and kisses, a glass pressed into her hand. Paul’s arm was around her waist and he couldn’t make himself let her go. He felt his chest swell with cocky pride, having her at his side. No way he should be getting a woman who looked like this. And she was all his; she couldn’t even glance at him without confirming that with her gaze.
“Let’s get started, shall we?” Harry asked, stepping up in front of the trellis.
Paul and Vanni went to stand before him, followed by Nikki and Tom.
Paul’s eyes were riveted on his bride, but she was hardly the only beautiful woman present. Mel was looking very fine on this occasion, color in her cheeks again and that sparkle in her eyes. Paige was stunning in her last trimester of pregnancy, a glow around her as she clung to her husband’s hand. Brie was a vision in lavender, her man reluctant to let very many inches separate them. Shelby was looking awful cute in a fitted pantsuit and heels to bring her up to five-five, her thick hair free and glorious, her smile bright.
And there was Nikki. The dark-haired beauty wore a closely fitting pale pink dress with a demure slit up one side, not visible unless a soft breeze caught the silk and lifted it. Her black hair fell down her back in a breathtaking contrast to the pastel. She wore a beautiful smile for her best friend’s vows and had no idea how closely she was being watched.
The vows were exchanged quickly, without a single mistake, and it was finally time for Paul to take Vanni into his arms and cover her mouth with a searing kiss that suggested he wished they were alone. The gathering cheered and applauded the bride and groom until they had no choice but to break apart.
As the couple made their way slowly through the gathering and toward the house where the party was laid out for the celebrants, Joe saw his chance. He grabbed a glass of champagne off a tray and pressed his way toward Nikki. He offered it and said, “You look very beautiful today.”
“Thank you,” she said, accepting the drink.
“There should be dancing at this party,” he complained. “Otherwise, how am I going to get my arms around you?”
“Are you flirting with me?” she asked him.
“I am. I think it’s the dress.”
She laughed at him.
“It’s an amazing dress,” he went on.
“Into fashion, are you?”
He shook his head. “I wasn’t before today.” He put out a hand to escort her. “Let me take you to a party.”
Not long after the food was put out, Walt realized he’d misplaced Shelby. He looked around the house and yard and then, on an impulse, he went to the stable. He found her there, all dressed up and fancy, stroking Plenty’s neck. She looked over her shoulder at her uncle and smiled. “It’s been years since I’ve seen this girl.”
He stepped toward her. “Looks like she remembers you.”
“I don’t know about that, but Liberty’s as self-centered as he ever was. And I sure like this new guy, Chico. I can’t wait to get back on a horse.”
“You know where they are,” he said. “Visit us whenever you can. Ride. Enjoy the summer along the river. It’s wonderful.”
“The whole place is wonderful, Uncle Walt. It lives up to all the pictures you brought.”
“I’m a lucky man.”
She turned around and leaned back against the stall. Plenty nuzzled her hair, making her laugh. “You’re going to have an extra bedroom when Tom’s gone to boot camp and West Point,” she said. “I’ll have to fill it up for you on weekends.”
“I would love that, honey.”
“Vanni says Paul’s building them a house. He’s going to start right away—try to get them in by Christmas even if there’s still a lot of work to finish.”
“That’s his plan as I understand it.” Walt chuckled. “I think he’s anxious to get his new wife out from under my roof.”
Shelby stepped toward her uncle. “I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do next. Probably go back to school, but it’s really too late for me to get accepted for the fall semester. Besides, I think I need a little more time to unwind. To think about what direction I might take.”
“Fortunately, you have lots of time.”
“I’d like to spend it here.…”
His eyes widened in disbelief. Hopefully, he said, “Do you mean that, honey?”
“You’ll be lonely without Tom. I can help with the horses.”
He reached out and stroked her shiny hair. “What about Bodega Bay?” he asked gently.
“I’ve decided to let it go,” she said. “I’ll be sure the work on the house gets finished, but I’ve already talked to a Realtor. I’m going to sell it, Uncle Walt. I think I want to move on. I don’t think it will take longer than a couple of months to sell. It’s a good little house.”