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"Oh, Sam, I can't believe it's really happening!" Laura's eyes glistened suspiciously in her radiant face, and Sam felt her own throat contract. If anyone deserved a happy ending, it was the woman standing across from her. Sam wouldn't have laid odds on it, though. After trying mightily--but unsuccessfully--for years to find a man for Laura, she'd practically given up hope of ever seeing her best friend walk down the aisle. But in the end Laura surprised her by finding Nick Sinclair on her own--with a little help from fate.
"Well, I'm your witness. Literally," Sam said with a grin. "It's real, all right. And you look absolutely beautiful. I don't think I've ever seen a more radiant bride."
"Do you really think so?"
"See for yourself." She put her hands on Laura's shoulders and turned her to face the full-length mirror on the far wall.
Laura gazed at the woman in the reflection, hardly recognizing the image as her own. Her peach-colored tea-length gown highlighted her slender curves and accentuated her femininity. The satin underslip softly hugged her body, and the lace gown overlay, with short, slightly gathered sleeves and a sweetheart neckline, had a quaint old-fashioned air that suited Laura. She wore her strawberry blond hair loose and full, the way Nick liked it, pulled back on one side with a small cluster of flowers and ribbon. Her bouquet was simple, a trailing arrangement of ivory and peach roses intertwined with ivy and wispy fern. It was a lovely ensemble, perfect for a second wedding, and she was grateful to Sam for helping her find it. But what she noticed most as she gazed in the mirror was her face, glowing and content and happy.
"Oh, Sam, is that really me?" she whispered. "I look...well...pretty."
Sam moved beside her and placed an arm around her shoulders. "Honey, pretty is a gross understatement. Try ravishing, drop-dead gorgeous and fantastic, and you might come a little closer." She shook her head and chuckled. "Wait'll Nick gets an eyeful!"
Laura reached for her purse and fished out a tissue. "I'm so happy it's almost scary," she admitted, dabbing at her eyes.
"Hey, hey, hey, no tears!" Sam said. "Your mascara will run and you'll look like a racoon. Not a pretty picture, let me tell you. You can cry after the reception--although by then I think you'll have better things to do," she said with a knowing wink that brought a blush to the bride's face.
A discreet knock sounded on the door, and Laura's brother, John, stuck his head inside. "Ladies, it's your cue."
Sam gave Laura's hand one more squeeze. "You'll knock their socks off, kiddo," she whispered. "And if you don't believe me, just watch Nick when you walk down that aisle."
She moved toward the door, pausing in front of the mirror to cast a quick, discerning glance at her own reflection. The pencil-slim skirt and short-sleeved peplum jacket of her pale sea green brocade suit showed off her fashionably slender figure to perfection, and the color complemented her shoulder-length red hair. She adjusted the peplum, smoothed down a few stray strands of hair and gave her expertly applied makeup one final inspection. Then she turned and winked at Laura encouragingly. "Okay, here we go."
Sam stepped into the vestibule and took her place behind the double doors that led to the church. She heard the organ music pause, then change melodies, and a moment later two of the ushers pulled back the heavy doors.
As Sam made her way past the sea of smiling faces in the small church, she was struck by the romantic ambiance. The deeply fragrant scent of rubrum lilies filled the air, and wispy greenery anchored with white bows trailed from the ends of the pews. Late afternoon light illuminated the stained glass windows, which in turn cast a mosaic of warm, muted colors on the rich wood floor. It was a beautiful and appropriate setting, Sam thought appreciatively.
The icing on the cake, of course, was Nick Sinclair. She looked at him as she moved down the aisle, and he smiled at her. Tall, handsome, charming--those words accurately described him. But he was also a patient, caring, decent man. In other words, exactly what Laura deserved. She smiled back with a small, approving nod, which he acknowledged with a wink.
Nick's best man and business partner, Jack, met her at the altar and offered his arm. As they took their places, the organ music faded and an expectant rustle filled the church as the guests turned for their first glimpse of the bride.
When the doors opened and Laura and her brother stepped forward to the majestic strains of "Trumpet Tune," Sam glanced again at Nick. The tenderness and love she saw in his eyes made her throat constrict. What must it be like to be loved like that? she wondered, turning to look back at Laura, whose gaze was locked on Nick's. Clearly they had eyes only for each other. For the eleven years she and Laura had been friends, Sam had never seen such peace and joy and confidence on Laura's face. Little wonder, considering the trauma she'd had to overcome. But with Nick's help, Laura had found the courage to put her past behind her and look with hope to the future. Sam was happy for her.
What surprised Sam was the tangle of other emotions that suddenly overwhelmed her. Sadness, for one. In the excitement of the last few weeks she'd had little time to reflect on exactly what this marriage meant to her. Now, as she watched Laura walk down the aisle and take her place beside Nick, she realized that while their friendship was solid and would endure, change was inevitable now that Laura was becoming Nick's wife. Laura wouldn't need Sam as much anymore, and that knowledge brought with it an unexpected sense of emptiness.
She also discovered that she was jealous, and that jolted her. She certainly didn't begrudge Laura her happiness. It was just that she longed for her own happy ending, futile as that wish was. She wondered if Laura ever stopped to think how odd it was that Sam, the vivacious partyer with more dates than she could keep track of, had never re-married. What Laura didn't know, of course, was that Sam's life-style was a sham, a pretense, a way to keep the loneliness at bay--not an attempt to find the right man, as she always claimed. Because there was no right man for her.
Sam glanced around at the small group clustered in the chancel. Nick and Laura now had a lifetime to look forward to as a married couple. Jack, the best man, was happily married, with a lovely wife and children. Her gaze moved to the minister, an attractive man with sandy brown hair touched with silver, who looked to be in his late thirties or early forties. Even he had a ring on.
Suddenly Sam felt more alone than she had in years. Alone and lonely and empty. Laura would find that hard to believe, she knew. Through the years Sam had made no secret of the fact that she led a very active social life. By entertaining Laura with tales of her various dates and dragging her into the singles scene, Sam had hoped to convince Laura that she needed a social life. But Laura never bought it. With her faith providing a solid foundation, she'd found her own quiet way to deal with loneliness.
And maybe her way was better, Sam thought dispiritedly. Because while Sam's frenzied social life kept her busy, it didn't ease the deeper loneliness. If anything, it left her feeling lonelier than before. The men she dated were out for a good time, not a life time. Which was fine, of course. It was safer to avoid dating the kind of man she might want to settle down with--stable, not afraid of commitment, caring. Because she might fall in love, and she didn't deserve someone like that. At the same time, she wasn't willing to settle for anything less. Which meant, bottom line, that she would spend her life alone.
Unaccustomed tears of self-pity welled up in Sam's eyes, taking her off guard. She usually kept her emotions in check, hidden beneath the brassy, irreverent veneer that had been her protection for more years than she cared to remember. She closed her eyes, willing the tears to evaporate, then blinked rapidly, struggling for control.
Suddenly Sam realized that the minister was looking at her.
"The ring," he prompted softly, in a tone that indicated he'd made the request more than once.
Sam blinked again and removed the ring from her right pinkie, where it was hidden by her bouquet. As she moved forward and handed it to him, he looked at her questioningly.
"Are you all right?" he asked in an undertone. She felt Laura's concerned eyes on her and somehow managed a shaky smile. "I'm fine."
Sam stepped back, her face flushed, embarrassed to have caused even a slight glitch in what was otherwise a perfect ceremony. She forced herself to focus on the moment, listening intently as the minister spoke.
"On behalf of Laura and Nick, I want to welcome you here today to witness their declaration of love and their pledge to spend the rest of their earthly days together," he said. He had a pleasant voice, mellow and soothing, and Sam felt calmer just listening to it. "I know it means a great deal to them to have so many friends and family members here to share this very special day. Their marriage is indeed a joyful event that we all celebrate.
"Witnessing a wedding is always an honor. It is an event marked with hope and love and commitment, and there are too few of those in today's world. But witnessing this wedding is a special honor for me. As many of you know, Laura and I share the same hometown. Her brother, John, and I are good friends, and through him I became acquainted with the whole family. So while I've been Laura's minister ever since she came to St. Louis, some fifteen years ago, I was her friend long before that.
"Through the years my respect for Laura as a woman and as a Christian has continued to grow. For all of us who are fortunate enough to know her, she is an inspiring example of what it means to lead a Christian life. I know that she will also be an inspiring example of what it means to be a Christian wife.
"I've known Nick for only a few months, but I have come to realize that he is a fine and caring man. I know he will love and honor Laura with a commitment and a steadfastness that will add richness and dimension to both of their lives.
"I think it's appropriate that Laura and Nick chose today--the first day of spring--as their wedding day. For both of them it marks a new beginning, a new life, a season of beauty and growth and hope, a new direction in their earthly journey. And that journey will hold challenges. Because as all of us know, the road of life isn't always easy or straight. We make wrong turns, we take detours, we hit roadblocks, we have flat tires. But as long as we keep our eyes focused on the destination, and as long as we are willing to listen to the Lord's direction, we can find our way home.
"Laura and Nick know their ultimate destination. They know the Lord will always be there to guide them. They've known that, individually, all of their lives. But now, as man and wife, they will have an earthly partner to help when the journey gets rough, as well as a friend with whom to share all the moments of joy and beauty that the Lord blesses us with along the way. I know that all of you join with me today in wishing Nick and Laura Godspeed on their journey as a married couple. And now let us pray...."
Sam stared at the minister, mesmerized by his rich, well-modulated voice and the words he'd spoken. His remarks were the most insightful, moving and comforting she'd ever heard in a church--a far cry from the "fire and brimstone" sermons she remembered as a child. For the first time Sam looked--really looked--at his face. He was actually quite handsome, she realized. And appealing in a way she couldn't exactly pinpoint. He seemed to radiate an innate character and kindness that spoke of trust and integrity. She frowned as she tried to recall his name. Laura had introduced them at the rehearsal the night before, but Sam hadn't been paying that much attention. It wasn't a "religious" name, she remembered that. Bill? Brent? Brad! That was it. Brad Matthews. Before the day was over she would find an opportunity to compliment him on his talk.
As it turned out, Sam didn't have a minute to herself until hours later. After the ceremony there'd been pictures, then the drive to the reception, then more pictures, a receiving line and finally dinner. All of this was followed by the bride and groom's first dance, the wedding party dance and the cake cutting. But finally the ceremonies and rituals were over. Maybe now she could find a quiet spot for a moment and take a deep breath, she thought hopefully.
Except that Laura's cousin intercepted her as she was searching for just such a spot. Sam tried to be polite, tried to focus on what the woman was saying, but she was suddenly bone weary, tired of smiling and plagued once again with the feeling of emptiness that had overwhelmed her during the ceremony. The melodic strains of Gershwin's "Our Love Is Here to Stay" drifted through the room, and she glanced at the dance floor to find Laura and Nick in each other's arms, moving as one to the music. The tenderness in Nick's eyes as he gazed at Laura was suddenly too much for her, and with a mumbled apology to Laura's cousin, Sam fled toward the terrace. Maybe some fresh air would help chase away the blues. At least it was worth a try.