The Frequent Bridesmaid
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The Frequent Bridesmaid

By
Charlie Hudson

I was ten when I participated in the third of my mother’s six weddings. My first entry was pink-clad flower girl, of course, and by her fourth I graduated to bridesmaid. I learned not to become too attached to my stepfathers, although I instinctively understood this was not something I should tell them. I can at least give her credit for marrying men who were so much alike that it was sometimes difficult to remember when she had a new last name. My sister, Lillie and I never changed, offspring of Mother’s second marriage that ended in widowhood. I could claim sorrow at the loss of our father, but in truth, he was a workaholic who was rarely home. Lillie and I accepted solemn condolences with little genuine grief. Our ebony-haired, pampered and equally indulgent mother was the center of our world. She provided fairytale glitter as an incredibly patient housekeeper organized the household and dealt with daily domestic matters too boring for Mother to be concerned with.

In the quirky way of Fate, Lillie and I became blonde and auburn versions of Mother, but I attracted business-like genes of our father and my sister a penchant for multiple husbands. She was separated from her second and allegedly madly in love with prospect number three. Unlike Mother, who recognized the value of well-established, corporate men, Lillie was drawn to athletes; a baseball player and a tennis pro with a golfer as the latest candidate.

I thought of these things while listening to Rita, the Lighthouse Inn’s wedding coordinator, give her monthly summary of ceremonies, receptions and a continuing upsurge in older couples renewing vows. When I accepted the position of Sales and Events Manager, it had been with the stipulation that I have at little as possible to do with the matrimonial end.

Rita was last on the agenda and we escaped to our neighboring offices after the meeting as she chirpily reminded me that Carole would return Monday, but she would be leaving Saturday. “I still can’t believe I agreed to go to Tennessee for a Foliage biking tour. The guide assured me it will be easy paths and that all the B and B’s are totally charming. The first sign of a slope and I’ll ride in the luggage van.”

She opened the French doors to her office and waved me through. “I suppose I should consider myself successful since Gabe was carrying on about some damn donkey ride into the Grand Canyon. I have no idea where he comes up with this shit.”

“Maybe being around a luxury resort too much makes him yearn for ruggedness,” I replied as she tossed her report folder onto her desk. Her husband worked for the Chamber of Commerce, but was at The Lighthouse Inn and Resort often enough to seem to be part of the staff. If you actually considered how much business he helped generate for us, he might as well be.

“Oh please, Linda. I don’t think Gabe has ever had a callous in his life. I’m convinced he suggests these things because he’s sure I’ll say no.” Rita eagerly lit a cigarette after an enforced hour of no smoking. “Anyway, the summer rush is over and the two weddings scheduled while I’m gone are modest. Everything is locked in and Carole can probably handle them with no help. You’re only the safety net in case something weird happens.”

“I’m not incapable of working weddings, I just try to avoid them as much as possible.” Carole, a shared assistant, had proved an eager apprentice and recently confessed her preference for wedding planning. I was allowing my share of her time to be disproportionately used by Rita and considered that my contribution to the institute of Holy Matrimony.

“You’re such a cynic.” Rita blew a trail of smoke away from my face and grinned. “Here we are in this romantic setting, knocking out as many as four ceremonies a day in peak season and you haven’t had so much as a date in weeks. God knows long it’s been since you got laid.”

Nothing like life in a fish bowl. “Well, perhaps if I weren’t personal witness to revolving door marriages, I would be a little less skeptical. Oh yes, and if I wasn’t constantly being hit on by married guys, to include a few for whom the term separated means their wife is in the spa getting a facial. That tends to dim one’s view of wedded bliss.”

“Oh, those are just excuses.” The telephone rang and rescued me from further perky propaganda about why I shouldn’t still be single. As if I did get enough of that from my mother and sister.

I waggled my fingers to Rita as she launched into her, “Well congratulations and of course we’ll work closely with you on every decision….”

The fact that I was not currently, nor very recently, involved with a man did not mean my life was devoid of substance. I had a job I thoroughly enjoyed, a comfortable lifestyle, leisure activities of my choosing and the ability to accommodate my own sexual urgings if required to do so. Men were not superfluous to me, but neither did I feel incomplete without one.

I stepped through the rectangular space Carole usually occupied. It was a semi-office with a large desk and L-shaped computer station and two comfortable blue upholstered chairs angled in front of the desk. The resort had an Activities desk in the main building lobby. Carole served as an entry point to group events planning for conferences, banquets, corporate off-sites and wedding related matters. The Lighthouse Inn wasn’t as large as The Sanderling in Duck and we offered many of the same amenities on a smaller scale.

We’d steadily grown with the increasing popularity of the Outer Banks, although as a non-franchise property, Marge and Mitch Callahan, the owners, were anxious to expand without losing the original character of the small inn they established in the 1950’s. They were actively involved with major decisions and allowed their two sons to handle day-to-day operations. The oldest son balanced his time with his real estate firm, the younger one, Terry, showed that his degree in Hotel Management had been a good investment. The Callahans held to the notion that a family business run correctly could hold its own against mammoth hotel chains. Their three acres of frontage on the Albermarle Sound had been carefully structured with a main building, two-dozen small cottages, well-preserved shore lines and three different gardens. A coastal wetlands one was a favorite for strolling. A raised wooden walkway with benches and a small observation deck had been built over a series of irregular shaped ponds that drew waterfowl and other local wildlife. Not surprisingly, the Elizabethean and Sound side gardens were favored for weddings. The most recent addition to our marriage options was a retired Navy chaplain, Captain Bob, who provided a large Catamaran, his ministerial services and a talented musical duo for those who wanted an on-the-water wedding. At last count, he’d performed fifty-eight ceremonies and word was spreading. God love entrepreneurship.

The resort’s buildings, to include the conference center, were covered in signature blue-gray wooden shingles with white trim and a two-story Lighthouse design was at the center of the main building. The casual dining restaurant faced the Sound even though the more intimate fine dining Captain’s Table had a better sunset view.

I mentally inventoried the property and reached for the presentation I was working on to entice a Pennsylvania regional philanthropic association to book their annual meeting with us. One of the first things I did when I came to The Lighthouse was propose a change in marketing strategy. Rather than try and compete for large organizations, we could target groups where as a smaller inn, we could assure them of personal, customized service; often being able to book nearly the entire facility for their use. It proved more successful than I hoped and combined with Rita’s efforts, the Callahans were enjoying an increased revenue stream. It was hands-on, intensive work, but as Rita pointed out, it’s not as if I had a husband, or even significant other, to attend to.

The telephone interrupted my thoughts and I almost smiled at the sound of Lillie’s voice. I never knew when she called if it would be in sisterly fun or something outrageous enough to elicit moans of frustration.

“June, sis, are you totally booked? Please tell me you’re not because you know I haven’t had a June wedding yet and it would be so lovely in the Elizabethan garden.”

“Hi, yes, I’m fine, thank you,” I said to slow her down. Apparently Rob, or was it Rod? Ralph? Ron?, had proposed. On the other hand, Lillie was fully capable of making pre-arrangements.

“I would have asked that next,” she laughed. “Now answer my question.”

I clicked the events calendar icon and of course every Friday, Saturday and Sunday was taken. Jesus, did we really have a minimum of four weddings each day?

“Lillie, I have no weekends left.”

“Sweetie,” she said patiently. “he’s a golfer; they work on weekends. How about a Tuesday? Sunset would be perfect.”

“That we can do. You want the third or fourth week? And has he asked you yet?”

“Don’t be silly. Roger is on the verge and I knew if I waited much longer, there wouldn’t be a chance for June. Let’s go with the third Tuesday and I can always cancel. I’m thinking of a theme this time. In fact, how do you feel about Renaissance? You know, like the festivals?”

“Lillie, even at sunset, it will be hot and humid at that time of year.” I tried as much logic as a conversation like this would allow for.

“Hmmm, you may be right. Well, perhaps a sea nymph sort of thing with gauzy fabrics and shell wreaths for our hair. If Rita is there, I’ll talk to her in a minute. Listen, before I forget, Mother was wondering if you were coming home for Thanksgiving? She was going to call, but she’s on the way to St Croix and I said I would ask you.”

“Lillie, I’ve told her twice that we have major events all the way through New Year’s Day. I can’t get away.”

There was a pause. “Oh wait, that’s right. I was supposed to ask if you wanted us to come there because you couldn’t get away.”

I held back from slapping my hand to my forehead. I didn’t pretend to understand why it was important to Mother to have family together at Thanksgiving. “Fine, tell her yes, but I need to know if it’s more than immediate family.” Mother was capable of issuing invitations to various aunts, uncles, and cousins until she had a retinue to rival visiting heads of state.

Lillie and I spoke for a while as I half listened to her update me on things I had no interest in. I passed her off to Rita, who would hopefully dissuade her from sea nymphs. If I was to play bridesmaid again, I wanted a dress that could be put to use afterwards. I made a note to call Mother in a few days. Notwithstanding a sweet, endearing and funny nature, depending on Lillie as a go-between for information was a known peril. If characteristics were dispensed at birth, she’d gotten my share of cuteness and I hers of practicality. I recognized it was as politically incorrect of me to compare Lillie to a porcelain doll as it was accurate.

Ah well, in moments of objective reflection I was grateful that my family was merely exasperatingly emotionally haphazard rather than dysfunctional.

A week passed with little variation in my routine. While Memorial Day to Labor Day was still prime season for the Outer Banks, autumn had gained considerably in favor, particularly for couples without children tied to school schedules. We were in a lucky cycle where hurricanes churned far enough away to leave us in peace and days were warm with robin egg blue sky. Early morning and evening were perfect for meandering among dunes or along stretches of sand beaches in cotton sweaters or light jackets. The nearly perpetual wind that once brought the Wright Brothers to nearby Kill Devils Hills and Kitty Hawk rippled water across the calm Sound and snatched bits of sea foam from waves on the Atlantic side.

Two couples from Scranton, Pennsylvania came down for a heavily discounted visit before they committed the group I was courting. We impressed them as I knew we would. The women asked me to join them for a final stroll through the wetlands section as they assured me we’d exceeded their expectations. I withdrew a handheld computer from my purse and worked out dates and minimal details while they were in an expansive mood. They parted with smiles as I stayed for a few minutes to add notes for quick follow-up. A formal contract along with suitable thank-you gifts would beat them back to Pennsylvania. I was grateful for the benefits of overnight delivery.

“Hi, there. The young lady in your office said she thought I could find you here.”

I looked up to find a smiling man sauntering toward me. I blinked twice as an unfamiliar feeling struck me. It’s not that he was extraordinarily handsome by any means. He was of average height with a tanned, slightly weathered look, clad in navy blue slacks and a burgundy and navy rugby shirt. His light brown curly hair was cut almost military short, but there was something about his grin and his gait that made me smile out of more than polite welcome.

“People were right. This is a great looking place and I might add, you look gorgeous the way the sunlight catches the reddish highlights in your hair.” He stopped further into my personal space than I expected and thrust out his hand.

I took a half step backward, uncharacteristically flustered by his comment and responded with a firm grip. “Uh, thank you.” His hand was strong without being rough, closely clipped fingernails instead of chewed.

“I’m Jeremy Kincaid, and yes, I answer to Jerry or Jer,” he continued with an exuberance that could only come from a genuine extrovert. Was he a new sales representative? “You’re Linda Brockton if I was told correctly.”

“Yes and I trust I didn’t have an appointment I somehow forgot.”

He laughed with an easy, rich sound. His eyes were the slate blue that shows gray depending on the light and fine lines crinkled around them. “Not at all. Buster Delaney said you were the perfect person to talk to about putting together a special wedding anniversary.” His voice had a faintly discernible drawl like a Southerner who’d been too long from his roots.

“Oh. Well, actually Rita handles weddings and related events and I do the rest. She’s on vacation, but Carole is here and she’s quite good. You can come with me to the office if you like and she can discuss our many options. Or if you and your wife have specific requirements already in mind, I’m sure we can accommodate you.”

He lifted his bare left hand. “No wife. It’s a 50th anniversary for my grandparents.” He tilted his head and grinned again. “I have no doubt that Carole is a fine lady as is Rita, but you see, I’ve fallen totally in love with you and will be heartbroken if you pass me on to someone else.”

I laughed and shook my head. “That was pretty fast. Was it the way I said thank you?” I stepped forward and inclined my head toward the end of the walkway.

“Nope. I knew it as soon as I saw you talking to the two old ladies. There you were, all willowy, a woman totally sure or herself, against this scenic backdrop. As soon as I got close enough to see those cat green eyes with little brown flecks, I was a goner. Oh, and I could tell you really wowed those ladies. Did you make the sale?”

My God, what energy and what a come on! Not to mention observant. Not many people noticed the brown in my eyes.

“Uh yes, I did, Mr. Kincaid, did you say it was?”

He shortened his pace to mine. “Jeremy, please. If I’m going to sweep you off your feet, we should be past the Mr. Kincaid phase.”

I tried not to laugh again since it seemed to only encourage him. We reached the office and he gallantly grabbed the doorknob. “Okay, Jeremy, but why don’t we discuss your grandparents first? Carole, this is…”

“Carole, the very helpful person,” he said heartily. “And I’d be happy to work with her if you’ll at least agree to have dinner with me tonight.” He grinned at Carole in an oddly conspiratorial way. “Linda thinks I’m kidding about having fallen in love with her. I hate to beg this soon in the relationship so maybe you can convince her that dinner would be okay. I promise to be a perfect gentleman.”

Carole giggled. “How can you turn down an offer like that?”

“Exactly,” Jeremy said quickly. “We can even stay right here on your home turf. And besides, I’m almost a stranger in need of a local guide. You’re in the hospitality business and saying yes would be most hospitable.”

Had I fallen into a time warp? Had I not only met this man a few minutes ago?

“Uh, look. How about a drink after work instead?” I heard myself say.

Jeremy winked at Carole. “Sure thing, but if we’re having a great time, you agree we’ll turn it into a real date, either tonight or later?”

“Fair enough,” I said with as much reserve as I could manage. I couldn’t tell if Carole’s laughter was due to Jeremy’s charm or my discomfort, but I backed through the French doors, wondering what I’d agreed to.

Luckily Terry called and I slid out the other side of my office for what became an extended meeting. I’d almost convinced myself that the encounter with Jeremy had been less strange than I remembered. There was a note waiting for me in the center of my desk though. Okay, I’ll hold off on the engagement ring until we have the first date. See you at five-thirty at The Captain’s Table. Carole said you like it best. J.

“Isn’t he a complete riot?” Carole came in, plopped in the chair next to my desk and pointed to the note. She was younger than me by eight years, married to her high school sweetheart and mother to a boy and girl produced in rapid sequence. She was worse than Rita about my single status and had only stopped trying to set me up with eligible cousins when I half-jokingly threatened to fire her.

I dropped the paper onto the desk. “Did he really want to schedule an event?”

Carole finger combed wispy black bangs and nodded her head so hard her silver hoop earring swung back and forth. “Uh, huh. This is so sweet I can hardly stand it. He’s staying in Manteo, by the way in one of the apartments downtown. He’s an engineer of some kind and is here working on the plan to expand the aquarium. His grandparents, that’s on his Mama’s side, are coming up on their fiftieth wedding anniversary and they weren’t going to make a big deal about it, but his Mama really wants to do something special and he saw one of our brochures and get this, they had their honeymoon in this dinky little shack somewhere around here because they couldn’t afford to go anywhere fancy. You know, that was back when this was mostly a fishing spot. Oh, most of the family is around Hinson.”

I marveled that she strung so many words together in one breath.

“Anyway, since he’ll be on this project for like six months, he told his Mama that if she’ll get his grandparents to agree, he’ll handle everything else. He, and this is the part that just gets me, says he wants to do it up right for them with renewing their vows and a nice dinner afterwards. He’s already contacted the entire family and we’re talking like fifty people by the time you add them all up. They’ll all book into here and make it a weekend. He’s even found the son of the preacher that married them and he’s going to do the ceremony. Is that not an absolutely darling touch?”

I held a hand up to stem the gush. “That’s does sound nice, Carole, but when are we talking about?”

“I checked and it’s not a problem. For some strange reason they got married the week before Thanksgiving which puts it smack in the middle of our pre-holiday time. Reservations put a block on the entire second floor and two cottages. Now he is a guy though, and he wants me and Rita to recommend decorations and everything, They’re going to have a reception at their church the weekend before this, but he wanted something for the family. He said not too fancy because he doesn’t want anyone to feel out of place. Oh and they drink so we’re not talking about a Baptist cake and punch crowd. I gave him a ballpark price and it didn’t bother him a bit. I mean we don’t have tons of planning time, but it’s not going to be very complicated.”

“I’m sure you and Rita will handle it beautifully.”

Carole wagged her finger. “You don’t get off that easy. He’s thirty-one, went to Georgia Tech because of their engineering school, spent six years in the Army, has never been married, has been to lots of places, was in Saudi Arabia working on big project until a month ago, has a brother and sister, likes all water sports, doesn’t golf much, is a pretty good cook and is open on the subject of children.”

I could feel my mouth about to drop open and compressed my lips in reflex. Carole was obviously waiting for me to say something. “Good Lord, does he never stop talking?”

She giggled. “Maybe not. He didn’t want you to chicken out on tonight and he thought if I knew all this about him it would make you feel more comfortable. He seems really sweet and you have to admit he’s good looking.”

“I only agreed to a drink,” I said and flashed back to the feeling when I’d first seen him. I was reluctant to acknowledge it and certainly wasn’t going to mention it to Carole.

She stood and tapped her finger against the edge of the desk. “Uh huh. Well, if you ask me, Jeremy seems to be exactly what you need and you ought to give him a chance.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” I shooed her away and pushed thoughts of Jeremy aside.

I kept busy the rest of the day and was startled when I realized it was a quarter after five. Carole had left earlier than usual after recommending I dash home to change into something less business-like for my date.

There was nothing wrong with my attire and it wasn’t precisely a date. I wore suits for specific meetings, but today I was in my preferred solid-colored round necked, short sleeve dress made of a twill blend that held its shape throughout the day and into evening with no problem. I had various styles, but dresses allowed me to mix and match scarves and jackets for either a loose or tailored fit. This morning’s choice had been teal dress with a taupe linen jacket, matching low heeled pumps and a teal and gold stripe scarf. I swapped the scarf for an all purpose herringbone gold chain I kept in the desk and left the jacket unbuttoned. It was too cool to be without sleeves. The quick transformation was complete with a powder and lipstick touchup and a brush through my shoulder length hair. I walked into the Captain’s Table, still not certain this was a great idea. Jeremy jumped up from the round table where he was sitting and hurried forward.

“I see why this place is popular and I got the last empty table without using undue influence. If I didn’t tell you earlier, you look terrific in that color.”

It was that smile again of his. A smile that involved his entire face and eyes, a smile that you automatically returned, certain of its sincerity.

“Would you like a history lesson about the bar?” I led the way back to the round table for two, nodding hello to guests and locals alike.

The room was a loft of the restaurant, most of the tables situated along the polished wooden rail with views of the window walls below. There were no booths. The bar was for relaxed drinking with dining was on the lower level.

“Let’s order first. By the way, Mattie here is a really nice lady.”

Mattie grinned and it looked as though Jeremy had another member of his fan club. Good Lord, he was a fast worker. I ordered a Kir to stay on the light side and Jeremy asked for a draft of local ale. He pushed the full bowl of cocktail mix toward me and waited until I shook my head to take a handful. “The planks on the floor look old and I’d guess the bar came from a hotel or something.”

“You’re close.” I glanced down at the well-worn wood. “The flooring was recycled from a couple of 19th century schooners. The bar is handcrafted and once belonged on the Belle Heloise of the Fair Crossings line. The Callahans sailed on it for their honeymoon and when they heard it was being scraped, they put in a bid for the bar.”

Mattie set my drink down with a wink that I ignored. It’s not as if I never entertained a client.

“That’s a great story,” he said and lifted his glass in salute to the carved teak piece. “Speaking of honeymoons, where do you want to go? Not that this isn’t a good place, but I assume you’ll want somewhere different.”

I raised my eyebrows. “I can’t say I’ve given it much thought.”

He grinned. “Hey, I’m easy. The Caribbean, Hawaii, the Far East, Europe, whatever you want will work for me.”

“Is there some reason you’re on this love-at-first sight bit? Or is this one of those situations where we met before and I carelessly forget?”

He lowered his glass. “Nope, I never laid eyes on you before this morning, although I do have the advantage of Buster Delaney having told me about you. He thinks you’re a wonderful lady and says that if was twenty years younger and single, he’d be after you himself. I promise, this is genuine head-over-heels, all it-took-was-one-look. Don’t you believe in love at first sight?”

“I’m the only women in my family who thinks a slower approach has a better chance of lasting,” I said dryly.

He waved his hand dismissively. “Not to worry. M grandparents, as we discussed, are having their fiftieth and they didn’t even meet each other until their wedding day. My parents are on their thirty-whatever and fell instantly in love during the Vietnam War. Dad was wounded and Mama was a nurse at Walter Reed Army Hospital. My oldest brother, now he took almost a month to propose to my sister-in-law, but my baby sister knew she’d found Mr. Right her first week at college. Not a divorce among them.”

“Your grandparents married without having met?” That seemed to be the safest topic.

He nodded cheerfully. “I realize you’re avoiding the primary issue here, but I’ll tell you about them because it’s so cool. Did Carole tell you that our family is from Hinson?

“Yes, she did.”

“This was of course back when the place was really rural and not what you’d call overly populated. My great-grandparents on both sides had farms in adjoining counties. My grandfather had gone off to World War II and was engaged to a young lady from the next county. He was in Europe, didn’t land at Normandy, but went in not long after. Anyway, he was in all these campaigns and nobody really knew when he was coming home. Okay, he finally gets word he’ll be released from the Army and he sends a telegram to tell his fiancée he can’t wait any longer. He wants to get married the minute he comes home, so they set the date. ”

“The fiancée wasn’t your grandmother, I gather?”

“No, my grandmother was younger, just barely seventeen, like this second or third cousin removed of the fiancée. She never met my grandfather, but was in the wedding as a bridesmaid. Now it gets a little tricky.”

I watched his animated face and felt another tickle of pleasure in his vibrant company. I wasn’t sure this was a rational feeling.

“As things happen, he didn’t get released as quickly as he thought and then there were problems with transportation. Time was getting really tight and he kept sending telegrams that he was on the way. He finally had to buy a truck from someone and he gets in like midnight before the wedding. Everyone is relieved, you know and there’s like this welcome back ceremony at the church where everyone has gathered. My grandfather was wearing his uniform because he doesn’t have any civilian clothes that fit, so he’s got all his ribbons on and stuff.” Jeremy paused and grinned.

“Okay, I’ll bite. What happened?”

“I say everyone was there and that was everyone except the bride.”

“You’re kidding?”

“Nope. People are waiting and all of a sudden it became pretty noticeable. The maid of honor was fidgeting and looking nervous. My grandfather asks her what’s taking so long and she bursts into tears. Turns out the fiancée had been seeing some guy, decided she couldn’t go through with the wedding and ran off with the other guy early that morning. The maid of honor swore she didn’t think she’d do it.” He paused for a sip of beer.

“Anyway, apparently there’s this dead silence because no one knows what to say. My grandmother is the first one to speak up and she says something like, ‘That’s just the most horrid thing I’ve ever heard and she’s a fool to go off and give up a man like you.’ My grandfather took a good look at her and said something like, ‘Well, we’ve got all these people and the preacher is ready so how about you marry me instead?’ ”

I looked at him suspiciously. “Now you are kidding.”

He held his hand his hand in a Boy Scout pledge. “Scout’s honor. The story has hardly changed over the years and just for the hell of it I went back and looked at some old newspaper clippings. There was an announcement about my grandfather’s pending return and the upcoming wedding with the other woman’s name. A week later there was a discrete announcement about my grandparents’ marriage on the same day, no mention of how it all came about. Hey they’ve lasted fifty years. Do you want to hear about my parents?”

I shook my head. “I get the idea.”

“Good, so do you want to stay here for dinner or go somewhere else? You can’t tell me you aren’t having fun?”

I was having far more fun than I wanted to acknowledge. “Look, I wasn’t planning an evening out and I have a very full schedule tomorrow with an early morning meeting.”

Jeremy accepted my thin excuse cheerfully. “No problem. We’ll wait for the weekend. Now, you never did answer my question about a honeymoon.”

I shot a quick look around to see if Mattie was out of hearing and lowered my voice. “Jeremy, you have to stop with that nonsense or there’ll be no dinner, not this weekend, not ever.”

He was nonplussed. “Good, then it is a date. Do you prefer Saturday or Friday. Oh, Sunday is okay by me if you’d rather.”

“Saturday and I’ll call you,” I said hurriedly. Christ, setting the date and breaking it later would be the quickest way to get out of this conversation.

He smiled as if he knew what I was thinking and I hoped I wasn’t blushing. What was my problem? I had at least three polished brush-off lines and I couldn’t seem to come up with any of them.

He drained his beer and motioned for Mattie. “I thought I’d try dinner here, anyway. Not that I doubt it’s great, but I have to be truthful when my mama asks me how it is.”

One of the chef’s specials was my favorite and I stood before I could change my mind. I dropped into my staff-to-guest voice. “Please do and try the Lobster Napoleon. It’s delicious. Oh, and the drinks are on me. It’s the least I can do considering the event you’ve booked.” I waved Mattie back with our put-it-on-the-house hand signal.

Jeremy rose, dropped three singles on the table and I tilted my head slightly up to look into his eyes. I broke contact almost immediately – too much warm merriment. I walked him to the hostess stand, said goodnight and consciously kept my pace leisurely as I walked away, certain that his gaze never left me.

I pulled my jacket close although I realized my shiver had nothing to do with the temperature. It was a pleasant shiver, that thrill of being tempted by an attractive man, the initial rush when you feel the excitement of mutual interest. It was his love at first sight silliness that unbalanced me, even though Carole was right in that he was cute and funny as well as single and evidently well employed.

It was really too bad because under other circumstances, we would have gone elsewhere for dinner. I made it a point to restrict entertaining at The Lighthouse to family, female friends and business. I clicked the remote to unlock my silver RX-8 and wondered how much of Jeremy was for real. Maybe he would take the hint with me leaving. Maybe he would act like a normal person when I called and we could go ahead instead of me breaking the date.

I drove to my townhouse at Pirate’s Cove, a marina community on the Roanoke Sound, with an interesting mix of true residents, rental homes and boats of all shapes and sizes. I often toyed with the idea of my own boat and I suppose I thought living in a marina might give me the final push needed. My skills, however, were not commiserate with my desire and there never seemed to be enough time for lessons. On the plus side, I did have a relaxing view of the Sound, practically no yard to tend and multiple restaurants for the many nights when I had no inclination to cook. Such as tonight.

My stomach was protesting a delay in being fed so I changed into jeans, an aqua blue, V-neck cotton sweater and ambled to Hurricane Mo’s, built above the marina store. The outside deck was understandably empty and about half the tables were filled. Not bad for a weeknight this time of year. When I saw Buster Delaney was behind the bar, I hopped onto an empty stool. The others at the bar were attuned to the television mounted at the far end.

“Hey Linda, how are you? Beer or wine and you want a menu?”

“I’m fine, thanks, a beer please and I’ll have the salmon special.” Buster owned the marina store, but preferred bartending and was more of a night person than his wife. She usually opened the store, always smilingly offering coffee to early risers. He was bulky although not much taller than me and surprising solid for a man his age. With deep set brown eyes and bald head, he could have been Buddha-like if he had a big belly.

He set a brimming pint glass down along with a bowl of pretzels and silverware rolled in a napkin. “Hey, did a young fellow come see you about a shindig for his family? Name was Jerry, I think.” Hurricane Mo’s was a short drive across the bridge from Manteo and it was reasonable that Jeremy would have stopped in as he got to know the area.

I was glad he asked the question. “Matter of fact he did. Jeremy Kincaid.” I ignored the pretzels and sipped the beer. Two was my regular limit on a weeknight and I hadn’t decided whether to count the Kir or not.

“Yeah, he was here the other night for a while. It was slow and we got to talking. Mentioned he wanted to do something real nice for his grandparents’ big fiftieth and I told him y’all could probably fix him up. Seems like a nice guy, but sure ain’t the silent type. ”

I laughed. “I have to agree. It’s going to be a nice-size event. Thanks for recommending us.”

He grinned. “You do good work for a fair price. He come on to you? I was saying how you’re a great person to work with and he asked if you were pretty and single as well. Told him the truth and he seemed mighty interested.”

So that’s how it started. “Well, I appreciate the compliments, but he comes on a little strong. In a nice way, I mean,” I added quickly when a trace of an overprotective frown tugged Buster’s wide mouth.

He relaxed and smiled again. “Like I told him, I know you’re one of them hard-working career girls, but I can’t believe someone hasn’t snapped you up yet. This guy might be worth checking out.”

I was saved by a call from the baseball fans for a re-fill and tried not to sigh at the well-meaning, misguide efforts of married couples to find mates for singles.

Fortunately Buster was only peripherally concerned with matchmaking. When he brought me the plate of grilled salmon topped with chipolte-mustard sauce, rice pilaf and roasted broccoli, we switched to the topic of which new drafts they should add to their line-up.

My excuse for not having dinner with Jeremy had not been a total lie since I did attend the monthly Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting the next morning. I arrived at my office to find a bubbling Carole and a beautiful fall bouquet.

“No, these are not for me. I just took delivery and didn’t even read the card.” She jumped up and carried the amber vase filled with russet, gold and pale yellow blooms as I unlocked my office.

It couldn’t be. She handed me the card almost before I dropped my purse into the bottom desk drawer. I opened it. “How polite,” I said to her eager look. “A thank-you from Mr. Kincaid for drinks last night.”

“Oh wow, that is so cool. Come on, you have to be impressed.”

“Carole, I hate to disappoint you, but I really don’t think he’s my type.”

“But….”

I refrained from gritting my teeth. “I don’t go for the instantaneous full court press,” I said simply. “And as you have pointed out, he’s got certain qualities. I’m sure he can find suitable companionship.” I turned on my computer and she reluctantly left me in peace.

As soon as she was on the telephone, I read the card again. The lobster was fantastic, although not as much so as the company. Looking forward to this weekend. You pick where and when. Jeremy.

That did it. A man who moved this fast was not what I needed in my life. I’d seen my mother and sister react in the same absurd, Oh, isn’t he attractive, oops I must be in love, gee why didn’t it last?, fashion too many times. Not that I hadn’t engaged in a few short-term flings over the years, but there was something about this guy that made me step back. The safe approach was to go no further down this path. Carole had said he was only recently returned from a lengthy project in Saudi Arabia. He was, no doubt, reacting to a prolonged absence of available women. As I said, he would have no problem finding someone else who was looking to be overwhelmed with charm.

I dialed his cell phone number and thankfully reached his voice mail. I left a succinct message thanking him for the flowers and explaining that I felt it best for our relationship to remain on a professional level. It wasn’t really cowardly, I would have said the same thing had he answered the phone. With Jeremy Kincaid settled, I turned attention to my job.

The bouquet the following morning was not as elaborate, although tastefully done. Got your message. A minor setback doesn’t mean I don’t still love you. I don’t want you to think stalker, so I won’t call or show up until you tell me you’re ready. Jeremy.

I hide my amazement and did not allow Carole to say whatever appeared to be ready to burst from her lips. I sent both bouquets to our spa.

I went through a day of moderate anxiety each time the telephone rang and searched the parking lot carefully before I left that evening, but true to his word, there was no other sign from Jeremy. I don’t know if Carole realized I accessed her calendar to ensure I was not on the premises when he came for his next meeting with her.

The third bouquet came five days later. I thought daily might be too much and decided on once a week to celebrate meeting you. Jeremy.

Rita had taken delivery when I told the puzzled young man that I thought he had the wrong address. She lowered into a chair unbidden.

“Of course it’s none of my business, but Carole told me all about it and I think you’re overreacting.”

“It is none of your business,” I tried without rancor.

“Be that as it may, I’ve been working with Jeremy on his event. I admit I thought Carole might have exaggerated a bit and I understand why you would be put off. He’s definitely not like most men around here and I told him he might want to back off a little with you being as opposed to romance as you are. On the other hand, I think he’s a total doll and for whatever reason, you’ve truly struck his fancy. Why don’t you cut him some slack and at least go on a date?”

I shook my head rapidly. “Rita, I am not opposed to romance. For God’s sake, the man knows nothing about me. If he acts this way now, suppose we go out and it doesn’t work? How on earth would I get rid of him?”

“You might actually have a good time. And if you’re concerned that he doesn’t know anything about you, why don’t you let him find out? Maybe it’s the hard-to-get part that’s attracting him.”

“Oh, so if I say yes, he’ll discover all my unlikable habits?”

Rita laughed, not perturbed by my sarcasm. “Are you going to sit there and honestly tell me you have no interest in him whatsoever?”

I hesitated too long.

“Ha! I thought so. By the way, do you know that he’s paying for this entire event? Meals, rooms, entertainment, all of it.”

Even without a mirror I know I looked stunned.

“That’s right, this whole thing for almost fifty people. He wasn’t bragging or anything, but said he made a bundle of money while he was in Saudi Arabia and couldn’t think of a better way to use it. He’s always been close to his grandparents and with raising six children they never had money for luxuries. He didn’t want anyone in the family to feel embarrassed by not being able to afford the weekend so he told everyone in the very beginning that it was on him. Not a soul has a clue as to how much this is costing him and that’s the way he wants it.”

Rita grinned and stood. “Okay, I’ll say no more, but think about it before you send that bouquet out of here.” She paused in the doorway. “Oh yes, this really is the last I’ll say. He’ll be out of town until right before the anniversary. I think he plans to keep sending the flowers.”

“Oh great,” was all I could come back with. I snatched my hand as I felt it reaching for the telephone to call him. No, no, no! I’d made the rational decision and it didn’t matter than he’d buttered up Rita, an incurable romantic. Oh what the hell, the flowers could stay. I had enough on my mind between regular duties, planning Thanksgiving for the family and taking Lillie’s calls about what was now her official engagement. Rita had tactfully steered her toward a traditional English Garden ceremony with no more discussion of nymph-like attire. I’d gotten Mother to keep Thanksgiving down to ten and reserved a table at our lavish buffet. I booked two side-by-side rental houses in South Creek Acres where everyone could stay. They were behind the dune line with a terrific view of the Atlantic and a fifteen minute drive from my personal domain. Close, yet not underfoot.

As Rita predicted, weekly bouquets continued to be delivered and I let them stay in the office. Considering what Jeremy was paying for his grandparents’ weekend, I figured he’d have to cut back on other expenses soon. Rita spent longer than required describing the plans to me. A few family members were coming in on Friday, the rest due to arrive by Saturday afternoon, the candlelight vow renewal ceremony at six in the evening, a sit-down dinner and dancing for all forty-seven and brunch the next morning. I agreed only that it was a thoughtful and generous gesture and told her the subject was closed.

Although we had no other events planned for that weekend, I was in the office as usual that Saturday and had deflected Rita’s chatter about how much fun the Kincaids clan was.

I closed down a little after one o’clock and stepped outside to one of the gorgeous fall days that makes you glad to live on the Outer Banks. Wispy clouds streaked the bright blue of the sky. The wind was remarkably calm and it was long sleeve warm, no need for a jacket until the sun set. It was too pretty for me to have spent so much time indoors and I changed my route toward the wetlands section. A couple nodded as they came off the path and another couple supervised a boy and girl tossing food to the ducks.

I could see a female figure sitting on one of the benches at the end of the second walkway. She turned her head and smiled as I came within speaking distance.

“My grandson told me how lovely this was and I needed a few minutes of quiet.”

“I’m glad you’re enjoying it. The Callahans, the owners, take a lot of pride in it. Oh, don’t get up,” I said as she started to rise.

“I want to see the last section before I go back in. Milton, that’s my husband, should be done with his nap soon and Jeremy, our grandson, will probably be looking for me. I’m Lucinda Kincaid, by the way.”

She was a head shorter than I, plump, although not what you’d call fat. Her white hair was pulled into a bun, her face not deeply wrinkled, eyes a clearer blue than Jeremy’s.

I smiled at her. “The anniversary couple. I’m Linda Brockton.”

She tilted her head, humor in her eyes. “The one Jeremy’s been telling us about. We were quite surprised with everything that’s being done for us.”

I shook my head. “Well, I think you met Carole and Rita earlier. They’re really the ones who’ve made all the arrangements with Jeremy. I just got him started.”

Lucinda nodded her head slowly. “I know. I also know Jeremy’s quite taken with you. Will you be coming to the festivities with him?”

I tried to keep my face neutral. Oh Lord, what had he told this woman?

“Uh well, you see, Jeremy is certainly wonderful guy with having put this together, but we’re not, I mean he’s…”

Lucinda raised a sturdy hand, a hand evidently accustomed to hard work. “Let me guess. Jeremy is charging ahead like a horse with the bit between his teeth. Gets it from Milt, I imagine.” She appraised me for a moment and motioned to the right. “Walk with me if you don’t mind.”

Her pace was leisurely, but strong and we continued on the boardwalk. “Jeremy’s a fine boy, but as long as I can remember he was taken by the cockamamie way Milt and I got married. Doesn’t surprise me a bit that he thinks he can just meet a woman and everything will fall right into place.”

I brushed away a lock of hair that was clinging to the corner of my mouth. “The one about the wedding? It’s was true? You two had never met?”

She laughed. “Sounds like he told it right. I know it must seem crazy, but the times were a little crazy, too. The war was over, people were trying to make up for lost years.” She paused and pointed to a blue heron that glided in for a landing. “Milt was quite the hometown hero, been in some bad fighting. We lived the next county over, but there’d be stories about him in the paper sometimes. I wouldn’t have been in the wedding, but my cousin, Darlene was her name, didn’t have hardly any female kin and everything was real hurry-up when they set the date. It was a big celebration in town, all kinds of folks caught up in the excitement. Oh, it was romantic sounding. Hometown hero gets back from the war, marries sweetheart.”

She leaned her forearms on the railing as we watched the heron bob his head and come up with a small fish. She turned to look at me, a self-effacing smile this time. “I don’t want to bore you with all the details. There was just something in the air that day, I guess. Milt’s uncle, the judge, granted a waiver for the waiting period and the court clerk ran across the square and typed with the certificate. Seemed like everyone in town wanted to be a part of it.”

I overrode what should have been professional detachment listening to a guest reminisce. “Did you ever regret your impulse?”

“Oh, about the middle of labor with my first child, it didn’t seem like such a good idea.”

Laughter escaped from us both. She straightened, lifted her head back slightly and looked into my eyes. “The truth is, of course neither of us was quite sure of what we’d done after it was over. There were some tough spots, but back in our day you didn’t go off and get a divorce just because the road got bumpy. Milt’s not perfect, but he’s a good man and a whole lot better than most I know. We’ve had a full life and the Lord willing, we’ve still got time ahead of us. Like I said, Jeremy takes after him in looks and manners – always has. Don’t hold it against him if he’s a little addled on the romance side. He worked in college in addition to keeping up his grades for his scholarship and went right into the Army after graduation. He was off in places where there weren’t many women, then that engineering job out in the desert. He’s hardly had a chance to meet anyone. He probably figures it’s time and got carried away. Now, if you don’t mind, could you walk be back to the main building? I took kind of a wandering path to get here.”

I was glad she didn’t seem to expect a comment about Jeremy and she changed the subject to questions about the inn. She had a natural warmth that was easy to respond to. It was obvious that Jeremy had grown up in an environment far different from mine. An atmosphere where marriage was considered something serious rather than a social accessory that one casually changed for a new style.

When we neared the lobby, two women called out and waved to us. I glanced around, but didn’t see Jeremy. I touched Lucinda’s shoulder. “It was a pleasure meeting you and let us know if we can do anything to make your stay more memorable.”

She cocked her head again. “I meant what I said about joining us tonight. It’s going to be a fun party.”

“I appreciate the invitation, but I have other plans. Congratulations on your anniversary and my best to you.” While Jeremy’s behavior seemed more plausible after what Lucinda told me, I wasn’t about to enter a large family gathering.

I said goodbye as the women converged on Lucinda and drove home vaguely wondering what the rest of Jeremy’s relatives were like. I passed the weekend in a sudden cleaning frenzy that overcame me with a desire to erase my around-to-it-list from clearing out closets to engaging in rare yard work. I called a girlfriend I hadn’t seen for weeks and we played tennis Sunday afternoon followed by a too-heavy meal of ribs and beer. I was deliciously tired by nightfall, went to bed early and slept without dreams.

The next morning Rita and Carole assailed me with tidbits from the successful Kincaid events until I swore I would take the afternoon off it they said one more word. We had a full schedule with Thanksgiving plans at the inn, not to mention my own visitors scheduled to arrive beginning late Tuesday afternoon.

It was almost six o’clock when I heard a man clear his throat and looked up to see Jeremy waiting in the doorway, holding a single red rose in his hand. He stepped to the chair in front of my desk and extended his free hand.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m Jeremy Kincaid.”

I stood, thoroughly bewildered.

He smiled tentatively. “See, you probably think we’ve met. There’s this guy who looks a lot like me, but he’s kind of a dipshit. Runs around telling pretty women he’s crazy about them, bombards them with flowers and stuff.”

I felt the smile I couldn’t hold back and shook his hand much as I’d done the first time. “Oh yes, I’ve heard about him. I also hear he has a really nice grandmother.”

Jeremy laughed. “Yeah, one who uses words like jackass when she’s trying to make a point.” He gestured to the chair and we both sat. He twirled the rose slowly between his thumb and forefinger.

“It really was a wonderful weekend and I appreciate everything.”

“I’m glad.” Oh shit, my internal protestations were evaporating like morning fog burning off.

“If it’s okay with you, I’d like to try this again.” He moved to the edge of the chair and offered the rose. “Miss Brockton, would you do me the honor of having a drink together? We could take a little time to get to know one another.”

I arched an eyebrow.

“Maybe take a lot of time,” he amended. “No hurry, not like that other guy we were talking about.”

I accepted the rose and slipped it into the vase with the remaining blossoms from the last bouquet he’d sent.

“A drink would be lovely, Mr. Kincaid. We’ll see how it goes and perhaps have dinner later.”

The End