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Chester, one of my field platoon brothers, bows his brow high into his thick, dark hairline as his light blue eyes glare into mine. “Are you sure, Hawke? You’re sitting on sixteen. Any blackjack dealer will tell you, sixteen is solid,” he asks.
He raises his voice to ensure I can hear him over the choppers landing in a dusty field a quarter mile from our base. Our squadron is bunkered down, waiting for the call on where we are going next. We’re on day five of a six-month deployment. A carefree sentiment prevailed since we’ve recently returned from a two-week break. My mood is extra relaxed as I only have six weeks remaining before my four-year stint in the military comes to a close.
My crew’s two-week hiatus from Iraq passed in a blink of an eye, but it was fourteen days of amazing accomplishments for the entire platoon. Chester’s prize winning mare birthed a foal, Tallis got engaged, Miquel got divorced, London, well. . . he went back to London, and I married the love of my life.
Jorgie is the type of girl men can only dream of catching. Thick, luxurious dark hair, the fairest, unmarked skin I’ve ever seen, and eyes that look like they were painted by Rembrandt himself. I’m not lying when I say Jorgie is the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen. She didn’t just knock me on my ass when I met her, she completely winded me—literally.
I’ve never been a man who believes in fate, until I met Jorgie. I’d known her brother, Hugo, since he joined the Kappa Sigma Phi fraternity at our local university. Not once in those two years did he mention how hot his little sister was. Don’t get me wrong, Hugo talked about Jorgie all the time, but from the stories he shared, Jorgie sounded like a female replica of him. Nothing against Hugo, but at six-foot-five and two hundred and fifty pounds of pure muscle, a female Hugo didn’t sound like the type of girl I’d be interested in getting to know a little better.
Boy, was I wrong. So very wrong.
After taking an unexpected naked plunge in Lake George during summer break, I discovered that Jorgie may have had Hugo’s dark hair, sky-blue eyes, and large smile, but she was nothing like her big brother. She was all woman, a woman I would have given anything to become well acquainted with.
I’m not going to lie, my endeavor to woo Jorgie the following four months was an uphill battle. I wasn’t just up against Jorgie’s displeasure of me crashing into her canoe butt naked after an impromptu skinny dip with a bunch of college girls, I was fighting a much harder challenge: Jorgie’s older brothers. The Marshall boys were raised by their father to always protect their mother and their sisters. Considering Jorgie is the baby of the family, Hugo and Jorgie’s older brother, Chase, made it their mission to keep us apart.
But like every determined offensive lineman, their challenge only made the game more enticing to me. You can’t achieve the greatest victory known to man without putting in a stellar effort. I did exactly that. I gave it my all. And, in the end, I won. Snagging Jorgie was the best game I’ve ever fielded. A triumph worthy of the record books.
I am the luckiest bastard in the world, because I not only caught Jorgie; I courted her, married her, and knocked her up with our son who is due in a little under six weeks. It’s been a great four years. Some of the best I’ve had.
Now, don’t take my admission the wrong way, I’m not saying things are always rosy in my relationship with Jorgie; we are like every other young couple out there. We fight, I get jealous, and we both have quirks we can’t stand about each other. She hates that I bite my toenails. I loathe that she covers my house in hideous floral towels and knitted tea covers when I am deployed, but just like every other couple, we take the good with the bad. It’s what makes us stronger.
My reminiscing comes to a halt when a deck of cards is flung at my head, hitting me just above my left eyebrow.
Gritting my teeth, I snap my eyes to Chester.
“Hit or stay,” he mutters.
He may have only said three little words, but his eyes relay so much more. Peering into Chester’s eyes is the equivalent of scanning an open encyclopedia. If you want to know anything about Chester’s life he isn’t willing to share, you just need to stare into his eyes. They disclose way more than his mouth ever could.
I rack my knuckles on the makeshift blackjack table. “Hit me. I’m feeling lucky.”
A roar from the men seated around me sounds over the choppers in the distance. With four cartons of cigarettes on the table, my gamble is substantial, but I have a feeling something immense is about to happen, so I am willing to take a risk on losing my bargaining chips for the next four weeks. My laidback mindset might also have something to do with the fact I don’t smoke, so my gamble isn’t as life-altering as Chester’s. His brow is beaded with sweat, and the distinct scent of defeat is leaching from his pores.
As Chester flips over the black checkered card, the room falls into resolute silence. I divert my gaze to the late afternoon sky when a flock of doves fly over the dust covered mesh tent we are camped under. The sky is void of a single cloud. It is beautifully serene but weirdly eerie at the same time. A patent imitation to the war-torn country I am immersed in.
Shaking off the uneasy feeling growing in the pit of my stomach, I turn my eyes back to the table in just enough time to see a five of hearts flip onto my solid sixteen. The crowd surrounding me erupts into an ear-piercing holler. I stare at the cards, absorbing what should be a glorious victory, but for some reason unbeknownst to me, I can’t celebrate.
When the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention, I return my eyes to the sky. Something doesn’t feel right. I have a terrible feeling deep in my gut that something is horribly wrong.
I bolt out of my seat and rush to the improvised communications room the crew set up when we first landed. I hear Chester calling my name, but my frantic speed doesn’t slow. Doctors have warned us numerous times the past two months that Jorgie may go into labor early due to our son being a little on the large size. Unfortunately, that can’t be helped. Jorgie is a stick of dynamite with a small frame and mouth-watering curves, but she stands a little over six feet tall. Add that to my six foot three height and two hundred twenty pounds, and you have a recipe for a record-weight-breaking newborn. The guys in my platoon have been taking bets the prior six months. At last check, ten pounds is the clear favorite sitting at 2 to 1 odds.
When I enter the communications room, I scan my eyes around the area, hoping to find a free station. Due to our secluded location, standard cell phone reception is spotty, so my regiment have stayed in contact with our loved ones via satellite internet the past five days. The service is slow, but when it’s all you have, you make it work.
Failing to find an unoccupied computer, I prop my shoulder onto the thick canvas material lining the room and patiently wait for a free station. You know that feeling you get when you know something isn’t quite right, but you can’t pinpoint the exact reason for your racing heart and clammy hands? That’s how I am feeling at now. For every second that ticks by on the clock, the churning of my stomach grows.
When the wary feeling in my gut becomes impossible for me to ignore, I move toward the closest bank of computers, preparing to plead with a fellow squad member for a portion of their fifteen-minute allotment. If that fails, I am not below yanking them out of their seats.
Just as I hit the first row of computers, Dangelo, a fellow member of my platoon, waves his hand in the air, signaling he is about to finalize his call. Breathing a sigh of relief that I’m not going to be assigned mess duty for a week, I run my hand over my clipped hair as I quickly span the distance between us.
“Stay safe. I love you, D,” I catch Dangelo’s wife, Penny, saying when I stop to stand beside him.
“I will, baby; see you soon,” Dangelo replies before pushing two fingers to his lips and pressing them onto the computer screen.
Once the screen goes blank, Dangelo stands from his seat and runs his eyes over my face, absorbing my stunned expression.
“Ah, shit, I better go and change my bet. I thought Jorgie still had a good three weeks to go, but from the look on your face, I have a feeling things may be happening a little sooner than predicted,” he mumbles before sidestepping me and racing toward Hamilton, the money man behind Jorgie’s bets.
Although Dangelo’s comment is aiming for playful, it adds to the gnawing pit in my stomach. As much as I can’t wait to meet my son, I would prefer for it to happen when I am on home turf, and when Jorgie is closer to the safe zone the doctors have been aiming for the past two months: the magic thirty-seven weeks mark.
Ignoring the shake beginning to control my arms, I plop into the chair and lift my hand to the mouse. My heart is walloping against my chest so furiously, the cursor on the screen wobbles as I scan it across the monitor to click into my Skype account and connect to Jorgie’s profile.
For every ring that goes unanswered, the weight on my chest grows.
By the time half an hour creeps past, I can barely breathe because the heaviness on my chest is so intense.
When another thirty minutes passes, my panic hits an all-time high.
Jorgie always carries her cell phone with her. From the day I was deployed two months after we started dating, she has ensured her cell is fully charged and accessible. Like every serviceman’s wife, she knows the importance a five-minute chat with significant others have on the men and women on duty. When I return from a tiresome day in the field, sometimes those quick calls home are the only thing that keep me going. So, it isn’t like Jorgie. She wouldn’t not take my call unless something terrible has happened.
I sink deeper into the hard wooden chair, causing the rusted hinges to give out a creak. While running my hand over the scruff on my chin, I try to calm the mad beat of my heart. I’ve never felt more hopeless than I do right now. I try to convince myself that if Jorgie is in labor, our son will be okay. Although six weeks is early, with how advanced technology is, I am certain he will be fine.
For all I know, the panic could be completely unnecessary; Jorgie may not even be in labor. She could be simply sleeping. She barely sleeps a wink when I am deployed as it is, let alone with a heavily pregnant stomach to contend with. I just wish she would answer my calls so I can settle the unease swirling in my stomach.
Any chances of settling the gnawing pit in my gut are lost when Major General Carmichael enters the communication room with the chaplain following closely behind him. My breathing turns labored as I slouch deeper into my chair, praying to God the chaplain isn’t here for me. I’ve only seen the chaplain once during my last deployment; it was when London’s brother was killed in duty. Other than that, the members of my crew only seek the chaplain’s assistance when they are either broken or on the verge of being broken.
The twisting of my stomach winds all the way up my throat when Major General Carmichael turns his gaze in my direction. I crank my neck to peer behind my shoulder, certain his glistening eyes are peering at someone else. A stabbing pain hits the middle of my chest when I discover there is no one behind me. After swallowing away a horribly bitter taste in the back of my throat, I return my eyes front and center, stand from my chair, and salute my senior officer as he spans the distance between us. Every step he takes tightens the stranglehold wrapped around my throat, silently asphyxiating me.
Carmichael stops in front of me, returns my salute, then gestures for me to sit.
“I’d rather stand,” I reply, speaking through cotton mouth, the shakiness of my words unable to hide the hammering of my heart.
Snapping my eyes shut, I faintly mutter, “Thank fuck,” into the late afternoon air when Carmichael hands me a satellite phone. In the military, bad news only ever comes in the form of a telegram, not a phone call.
My gratefulness is short lived when I press the phone to my ear and am delivered the news no man ever wants to hear. “Hawke, it’s Hugo. Jorgie’s been in an accident. She’s not good.”
“Our baby?” I stutter, my words barely a whisper.
Hugo doesn’t utter another syllable. He doesn’t need to speak for me to know the words his mouth is failing to produce. I can hear every horrid comment through the heartbreaking sob sounding down the line.
As the room spins around me, I fall to my knees and howl.
I am completely and utterly destroyed.
Two days after the call that ended my life, I met and held my son for the first time in the morgue he was resting in. The tuft of hair on top of his head was as dark as his mother’s, his lips just as plump. Even being six weeks early didn’t take away from his chubby little cheeks and chunky thighs. I know parents can be biased, but I am not lying when I say Malcolm was perfect in every way. Ten perfect little toes and ten perfect little fingers on a precious little boy who never had the chance to play catch with his dad, ride a bike, kiss a girl, or take his very first breath. Malcolm was everything I could have wished for and more. He was the perfect combination of both Jorgie and me.
As if the pain of losing my son wasn’t tragic enough, I also lost my wife—my beautiful little firecracker. The injuries Jorgie sustained when she was hit by a drunk driver after having lunch with her best friend, Ava, were fatal. But, thankfully, against doctor’s advice, Jorgie’s family kept her on life support so I would have the opportunity to say goodbye to the love of my life in person.
It was a bitterly sweet day.
I’ll be forever grateful that I was the man who got to place Malcolm into his mother’s arms for the first time, but I’ll never forget hearing Jorgie take her last breath only a short four hours later.
I thought the disturbing images of war I encountered during my years of service in the US Army was going to be the worst thing I’d ever see in my life. It wasn’t. It was seeing my wife laid to rest two days after her death with our son, Malcolm, cradled in her arms. There has been no crueler image than that one. It still haunts me to this day.
Even more so since I am standing at the foot of the church they were laid to rest in. A little less than five years have passed since that day, but I still recall it like it was yesterday. Jorgie was buried in the wedding dress she walked down the aisle in only three weeks earlier. Malcolm wore the outfit he was supposed to be christened in at this very church. They were buried in a beautiful plot near an old oak tree only a few feet from here.
It’s somewhere I haven’t visited since the day they were laid in their final resting place - a place I’ll never be strong enough to visit. Jorgie and Malcolm aren’t in that white coffin covered in dirt. They are in my heart. I carry them with me everywhere I go. It won’t matter if another five years pass or fifty, they will forever be carried in my heart.
I gulp in a deep breath, trying to build the courage to push open the church doors that both haunt and appease my grief. When I married Jorgie in this church, I thought we were creating memories we would have forever to cherish. Little did I know I’d be saying my final goodbye to her at the same church only three short weeks later.
As I push down on the old brass handle on the whitewashed double doors, I remember a saying I’ve quoted numerous times the past five years.
Memories last a lifetime, but not all of them are sweet.
A late fall wind whips up my hair, adding to my already disheveled appearance as I slide out of a rusted old pickup. “Thank you,” I praise the lady who rescued me from being stranded at a B&B ten miles out.
The leanly built lady with dazzling brown eyes bows her head before pulling her truck away from the graveled-lined parking lot of a cute little church on the outskirts of Rochdale, NY. When I requested for my Uber driver to alter our initially agreed-upon route, I never considered that I’d end up stranded on the side of an isolated road. Thankfully, my bad timing corresponded with the knock-off time of the maid from the B&B, otherwise I’d be not only wrangling a tousled hairstyle but blistering feet as well.
Although I’m arriving at my friend’s wedding a little ruffled around the edges, I’m glad I couldn’t harness the desire to capture some sneaky snaps of Ava and her bridesmaids getting ready. Photography is my life. It nursed me through some of my darkest days. When I have a camera in my hand, I truly don’t feel fear. Which is incredible for me, as normally, anything that goes bump in the night frightens me. But when I am behind the lens, magic happens. One click of a button can capture the smallest memory for eternity, but it is the beauty behind the image that I treasure the most. A picture is a poem without words. So many things are said without a syllable needing to be spoken.
When Ava requested for me to photograph her wedding, I graciously declined. Staged shoots aren’t my style of photography. I like the raw emotions you rarely see when a camera is shoved in your face. I love the pictures that capture the individual in their natural environment. When they are staring into space reminiscing about the past, or licking a stream of ice cream dribbling down their dirty palms. When my clients look at their proofs, I want real life memories to be triggered, not fake ones of an ideal life in a perfect world displayed everyday on social media. Every red-blooded human knows there is no such thing as a perfect life. That isn’t possible in the world we live in. Life can be both cruel and beautiful. My photos aim to capture both sides of the coin. The good and the bad.
That was what I did today. I photographed the real Ava. I caught the little tear in the corner of her eye when she ran her index finger along the picture frames containing photos of the loved ones who can only attend her wedding in cherished memories. I captured the way her son Joel’s nose screwed up when asked if he was excited to meet his brother or sister due in a few months, and I caught Ava’s breathlessness when she slipped into her wedding gown for the very first time. I captured the real Ava today. It was a truly magical experience. One worth the risk of being stranded on an isolated country road.
Once my rescuer’s truck is nothing but a speck on the horizon, I dig my hand into my oversized clutch and pull out my compact mirror. I cringe when I spot my reflection. I wouldn’t say I’m an overly girly type of woman, but I’ve been known to have sporadic moments of girliness. Thankfully, today, I’m not having a moment. Although my sweat-slicked skin could benefit from a soak in a tub, my last-minute change of heart has stretched my time too thin to head to my hotel. My schedule is so tight, I had no option but to touch up my makeup during the bumpy fifteen-mile trip from the B&B to the church.
Have you ever applied makeup in a moving vehicle? It’s practically impossible. Well imagine doing it in a rusted old truck juddering down a road at forty miles an hour. I nearly lost an eye while adding a coat of mascara to my lashes. The driver swerved to miss a pothole, sending the mascara stick smearing across my face. I dabbed up the mess the best I could, but from the raccoon look I am wearing, there is no doubt who won the mascara battle. Mascara – 1. Me – 0. Lucky for me, smoky eyes are making a comeback.
After retuning my compact to my clutch, I secure the handle on my bag and drag it across the gravel parking lot. Pretending I haven’t noticed the little black stones ramming into the swivel wheels of my suitcase, I roam my eyes over the church Ava and Hugo are getting married in. It is very cute with large stained glass windows lining the entire east wing, and a beautiful glass atrium housing the silver bell that will ring at the end of their ceremony. It is quaint and charming; a stark contradiction to the graveyard attached to it.
By the time I reach the wooden stairs at the front of the church, I am sweating profusely and my heart is hammering against my ribs. My perspiring state isn’t just from dragging my heavy suitcase up the small flight of stairs; it is from the prospect of walking into a church full of strangers. I’ve known Hugo for nearly seven years, but the only people I’ve met in his inner circle are his soon-to-be wife, Ava, and his mother, Mrs. Marshall.
In my industry, meeting strangers is a regular occurrence, but usually, it is only a handful of people at once. The last I heard, the number of attendees for Hugo and Ava’s wedding was sitting close to four hundred. I don’t even know four hundred people. I shouldn’t be surprised their guest list is so high, though. From the stories Hugo shared, his family have been upstanding citizens of the Rochdale community for longer than I’ve been born. And I’m sure when rumors circulated that an open bar was being funded by Hugo’s wealthy boss, Hugo had relatives he didn’t even know existed crawl out of the woodworks.
When I hit the top of the stairs, I run my fingers through my hair, not wanting to startle Hugo with my tousled appearance. The rake of my fingers stops halfway through my platinum blonde locks, closely followed by the beat of my heart. Hugo has seen me at my worst, so I’m sure windblown hair and smeared mascara aren’t going to faze him in the slightest.
After releasing a nerve-cleansing breath, I push on the church doors with all my might. Before I can grasp that the door is a pull design, not a push, the thick wooden door sails open and smacks me right in the nose. If that isn’t bad enough, the person fleeing the church like a groom with cold feet crashes into me, sending me sprawling onto my backside. My wrist jars on the hard wooden floor and a breathless grunt parts my lips. I inwardly squeal when my unladylike topple sends the free-flowing skirt of my dress flying over my head.
“Oh, shit, are you okay?” says a profoundly deep voice from above.
Grimacing with embarrassment, I yank down my dress before mumbling, “Uh huh. I’m fine. What were you doing racing out of there like a mad man anyway? The only person allowed to flee a church like it’s on fire is the groom. And considering Hugo has been waiting for this day for years, I highly doubt you are him.”
After scampering off the floor, I lift my humiliated eyes to the man who just barreled me over. Oh, for the love of god, Greek Gods do exist. Strong, powerful jawline; dark, well-groomed hair; sculptured cheekbones; and a pair of rich, soul-absorbing eyes all assembled on a suit-covered body that looks like it eats gladiators for breakfast. If I had to guess the mysterious man’s age, I’d say he was a couple of years older than my twenty-eight years. It isn’t that his chiseled face has signs of a man in his early thirties; he just has a mature approach about him. He has an edge of sophistication and seems well put-together – a stark controversy to the woman standing in front of him.
My gaped mouth gains leverage when the reality of the situation dawns on me. He just saw my panties—my hideously ugly panties. I’m not talking slightly frumpy with an edge of sexiness some men find appealing. I’m talking contouring from the middle of my thigh to halfway up my stomach skin-tone panties. Great!
Vainly pretending I can’t feel my cheeks burning, I lock my gaze with the dark-haired stranger. “Don’t panic. Despite mass hysteria, it was announced earlier this year that you can’t catch the wedding bug.” I tilt in closer to his side and whisper, “Just don’t tell my grandma. She’s got everything crossed that I come home from this wedding with the full-blown nuptial virus.”
I aim for my tone to be witty, but when the turmoil in his murky eyes escalates, I realize my attempts at humor are borderline. I’ve never been good at cranking out the jokes, but I gave it my best shot. I’ll do anything to deflect the awkwardness of our meeting away from my contouring undergarments.
Before I can mutter another cringe-worthy syllable, the sound of gravel crunching under tires bellows through my ears. Cranking my head to the side, I spot two white Rolls Royces gliding down the church driveway.
“Shit, quick, it’s the bridal party,” I mutter, partly to myself, and partly to the mysterious stranger eyeballing me like I’m a circus freak.
Snagging my suitcase off the ground, I loop my arm around the mute stranger’s elbow and pace to the doors he just charged out. I’m not going to need to lift weights for a week with how much effort it takes for me to drag him into the church foyer. Anyone would swear he is the one about to get married with how reluctant his steps are.
Once we enter the small white foyer, I release the dark-haired stranger from my grasp so I can dump my suitcase in a coat closet on my left. His eyes track me as I cross the room, but not a peep seeps from his hard-lined lips. The hum of gleeful chatter beaming out of the church sanctuary causes the hairs on my arms to bristle and my heart to beat a little faster. Well, I’m assuming it is the liveliness causing my body’s odd reaction, but I can’t one hundred percent testify to that, as my stomach did a weird flipping thing the instant I curled my arm around the mute stranger’s elbow.
After closing the coatroom door, I run my eyes over the silent stranger as I pace back toward him. The well-fitting three piece suit he is wearing sends blood rushing to lower regions of my body. Even with a heavy groove between his eyes and an unapproachable demeanor, he is insanely sexy. The type of man you’d expect to see on the cover of magazines. Or do anything to see what he looks like under his clothing. Swallowing down my surprise at my inappropriate inner monologue, I stop pacing when I am within reaching distance of the stranger.
“Your tie is wonky,” I mutter quietly, noticing the only fault in his entire package is his black bowtie dangling precariously to the left.
“May I?” I bounce my eyes between his stormy gaze and rumpled tie.
His Adam’s apple bobs up and down in slow motion before he briefly nods his head. My hands shake when I lift them to straighten his bowtie. My nervy response can’t be helped. The idea of entering a room where a large group of people are already seated rattles me, but I am just as cautious being in the presence of a single man, even if he both excites and intimidates me.
My anxious composure isn’t solely based on the mysterious man’s incredibly handsome features; it is because he is also ginormous. His tall height towers over my five-foot-six stature by a good six to eight inches. His shoulders are double the width of mine, and the tormented look in his eyes sets me on edge. But, if I am being honest, even with my insecurities on high alert, I’m drawn to him. Perhaps it’s because he reminds me of Hugo? On the surface, Hugo also looks rough and brutish, but his heart is as big as his frame. I wonder if the same could be said for this mysterious stranger?
“There you go. Perfect,” I mumble after ensuring his tie is sitting straight and center.
I take a step back and run my hands down the front of my misty green Chi Chi knee-length lace dress. “Do I look okay?” I ask, hoping my tumble didn’t add to my already tousled appearance.
Slanting his head to the side, the stranger’s eyes travel the length of my body. As the arch of his brow grows, so does the swirling of my stomach. I’ve gone through a lot of personal growth the past three years. One of my biggest hurdles was learning not to care about the opinions of others. But for some reason unbeknownst to me, I want his opinion, and I want it bad.
When he returns his eyes to mine, a tense stretch of silence crosses between us. My irritation swells. Not because he clearly doesn’t find me as appealing as I find him, but because I haven’t progressed as far as I thought I had in self-assuredness. His rejection not only dents my ego, it makes me realize I still have a long road to travel before I’ll be fully recovered from an incident that shook my core six years ago.
“Okay. Let’s do this,” I mumble to myself when the thick tension hanging in the air becomes too great for me to ignore.
The faint whizz of chatter trickling into the foyer turns rowdy when I swing open the double doors of the church sanctuary and walk two steps inside. Even with the burn of rejection hitting the middle of my chest, I can’t help but crank my neck back to seek the attention of the stranger standing mute in the foyer.
“Are you coming?” I question when his haunted eyes connect with mine for a fleeting second.
His rich chocolate eyes peer past my shoulder to the wedding congregation before he locks them back with me. The edgy cloud in his gaze mimics mine to a T; we are both unnerved at the idea of entering the jam-packed church. I give him a small smile, pretending my heart isn’t hammering against my ribs. Although the man standing in front of me is technically a stranger, I’d rather walk into the church with him by my side than alone.
“Come on,” I mutter with a nudge of my head, my words as shaky as my composure. “My dad has always said ‘even the most daunting tasks are less awkward with company.’”
For the slightest moment, his freaked-out mask slips away and a spark of determination fires into his eyes. It feels like minutes pass in silence before he gingerly pushes off his feet and strides toward me.
As we walk down the aisle, side by side, he remains as quiet as a church mouse, whereas my eyes scan the packed room looking for two vacant seats while trying to ignore the outlandish current of electricity zapping through my body from his closeness. For every step we take, the crease between my brows deepens. The energetic chatter filtering in the air vanishes as the room falls into complete silence. Even a pin drop would be heard. My hands dart up to smooth my air-blown hair when numerous pairs of eyes turn to gawk at us. I thought the stare my newfound friend gave me on the church stairs was daunting. It is nothing compared to the intensity of every pair of eyes in the room directed at us right now. Although the mysterious stranger has heart-racing looks that would conjure inquisitive stares from lust-driven women of all ages, he hasn’t just secured the devotion of every pair of female eyes in the room, he has acquired the zealous interest of nearly every attendee surrounding us.
When the tension in the room becomes throat-clutching, we gain the attention of the final pair of eyes in the room: Hugo’s mother, Mrs. Marshall. When her neck cranks back to us, her pupils widen, and she gasps in a staggered breath. After clamping her hand over her O-formed mouth, only just suppressing a painful sob, she leaps out of her chair and races down the aisle. The smell of floral perfume fills my senses when she throws her arms around the mysterious stranger’s neck and hugs him tightly.
Feeling confused and awkwardly out of place, I excuse myself from the heart-strangling reunion and take an empty seat a few rows up. It is only as I pace away from the dark-haired stranger do I realize the prying stares of hundreds of eyes weren’t directed at me. They are solely devoted to the handsome man with the haunted eyes.
My curiosity about who the unnamed man is grows when Hugo emerges from the vestibule at the back of the church ten minutes later. His long strides come to a dead stop when his eyes lock in on the dark-haired man now standing at the end of the aisle. Just like Mrs. Marshall, Hugo’s reaction causes tears to prick my eyes. He looks both shocked and relieved by the stranger’s attendance. With a smile on his face I’ve only seen a handful of times, Hugo aids his mother back to her seat at the front of the church before eagerly striding to the unnamed man. Their conversation not only attracts my full devotion; it demands the attention of every attendee in the room.
My gawking stare only stops when the whimsical voice of John Legend plays out of the speakers.
Hugo spins on his heels to face the back of the church. My interest in the mysterious stranger’s status in Hugo’s life piques when Hugo gestures for him to stand next to him as the bridesmaids commence walking down the aisle.
If he is Hugo’s best man, why was he fleeing from the church?
Any further debate on the stranger’s identity is pushed to the background of my mind when the heat of a gaze secures my devotion. Lifting my eyes from my intertwined hands, I lock my gaze with a pair of eyes that causes both tears of happiness and sadness to well in my eyes from one little glance.
Hugo: my ultimate savior. The man who sacrificed his own happiness to ensure I kept mine.
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Second Shot - Enigma Book #10