Save The Date Part 51

"He called me and asked me if I'd mind bringing it down here."

Cara's head jerked up. The Colonel stood in the doorway to the hallway.

"You came," Cara breathed. "You're really here."

Bert took her by the elbow and steered her toward her father. He gave her a quick peck on the cheek and whispered in her ear before handing her off to her father. "He's nervous as h.e.l.l. So go easy on the old guy, okay?"

Cara nodded, and then Bert was gone, and she and the Colonel were alone, in a small alcove just a few feet away from the entry hall.

With a start, she realized she hadn't seen her father in over two years. Since before her split with Leo. Was that possible? He'd let his military-issue brush cut grow out a centimeter, and now his once-dark hair was more salt than pepper. He stood erect in a proper charcoal suit with a burgundy tie, but Cara noticed that the collar of his starched white dress shirt gaped a bit. In her memory, the Colonel had always towered over her, but now they were almost at eye level.

"You're so beautiful," the Colonel said, his voice shaky. He took her bouquet and placed it on the gilded settee, then took both her hands in his. And true to Bert's warning, the Colonel's hands were shaking. As were Cara's.

He touched a lock of her caramel-colored hair, which she wore down, with a single coral rose pinned behind her right ear. "Your hair is longer," he said. "I like it that way."

"Yours too," Cara pointed out, and they both laughed awkwardly.

"When did you get in?" Cara asked. "I had no idea you were coming. You said you weren't sure...."

"I got in just now. Jack's brother Ryan picked me up at the airport in Savannah and brought me straight here."

"They told me Ryan was making a bourbon run," Cara said.

"Oh, we stopped for the bourbon, all right," the Colonel said ruefully. "I was pretty nervous about seeing you again ... after everything."

"I'm so glad you came," Cara said, her eyes misting up. "I've missed you, Dad."

"I've missed you too, Cara Mia," he said, squeezing her hands tightly.

"Ahem."

Ellie Lewis was beckoning them. "I'm sorry, Cara, but if we are going to start this wedding on time, you have to come have these photos taken with the wedding party right now! Jack and Ryan and Harris have already gone over. The barn is filling up, and we only have ten minutes till go time."

The Colonel shook his head. "Late again. Some things never change."

"We're coming," Cara said, tucking her hand through her father's elbow.

Cara peeked around the barn doors. She could see Jack and Ryan standing in front of the makeshift altar he'd built just for the occasion, from barn boards and leftover roofing tin. A violinist was playing softly up in the hayloft.

"Go!" Ellie Lewis said, sending Torie and Meghan on their slow march up the carpet runner Jack had tacked down earlier in the morning.

Cara twirled her bouquet in her hands again. "Dad?" she whispered. "Mom's pin. Where did you find it?"

"Right where it's been since she died," the Colonel said. "Valerie put together a box of her things for you. Some of her jewelry, her favorite blue sweater, her watch, that painting of pink flowers that she liked. It's been at the house, on the top closet shelf."

Cara raised an eyebrow. "All this time? I thought you got rid of everything."

"Not everything," the Colonel said. His piercing blue eyes met hers. "I have so many regrets. About her, about us. You. I thought if I wiped the slate clean, it would all go away. All the hurt. And the guilt. I wasn't there for her, or for you. And I regret that more than I can ever say."

"Doesn't matter anymore," Cara said, smiling. "You're here for me now, today."

"Thanks to this young man of yours," the Colonel said. "He called me, multiple times. I wasn't going to come down here, but he doesn't give up easily, does he?"

"No, thank G.o.d," Cara said fervently. "He wouldn't give up on me, either."

"I like him," her father said. "He suits you." He took a deep breath and took a step forward, then a quick step back. "Who are all those people in there?"

Cara looked again. Heads were turned in their direction. With a start she realized the barn was full. Full of familiar faces. Vicki Cooper sat on the end of one of the plank benches with her husband, and her son and her daughter-in-law Kristin, Cara's first bride. Other brides and their families were scattered around. Jack's extended family took up row after row, aunts, uncles, cousins, and second cousins. As an only child of only children, she continued to be amazed at how close and intertwined her new family was.

She felt a warm surge of happiness, at the surprising recognition that these were her people, and that finally, she belonged.

"I know Ryan tried to explain this, but tell me again how you're connected to the people who own this plantation?" the Colonel asked.

"Mitch and Libba Strayhorn are friends," Cara said, liking the way the word sounded. "And clients. Jack and Ryan totally rebuilt this barn," she added proudly. "And pretty soon, they'll be family. Their son Harris just got engaged to Jack's little sister Meghan. You'll meet everybody at the reception."

From inside the barn, they heard a piano softly playing, accompanying the violin. And the first strains of Mendelssohn's wedding march.

"Okay. Now!" Ellie whispered. The Colonel stiffened and froze.

"Now!" Ellie repeated, waving her hankie like a starter flag. "Go. Go. Go."

"Dad?" Cara squeezed the Colonel's arm. "Just this once, maybe I could be on time?"

Every head in the room was turned in their direction. Somebody, probably Ellie, had remembered to turn off the overhead lights and switch on the dozens of strings of cafe lights that crisscrossed from the barn beams. Their guests' faces were a blur of golden light.

She floated up the aisle on her father's arm, hurrying a little to match the Colonel's measured march steps. At one point, it occurred to her that she hadn't actually hired a piano player for the wedding. When she glanced toward the altar, she was shocked to see an elderly woman with a shock of white hair pounding the keys of an upright piano she'd never seen before.

Sylvia Bradley? Only Jack Finnerty could have managed such a feat.

Finally, they were at the altar. Jack and Ryan stood at ease, dressed in dark gray dress pants, open-collared white shirts, and mismatched vintage tweed vests. Cara had made their boutonnieres herself, from flowers she'd planted in the courtyard garden at Jones Street, sprigs of dusty miller, lavender, tiny white asters, and blue salvia wrapped with raffia, backed with a single quail feather.

The minister, one of Jack's high-school cla.s.smates, wore a dark suit, and a jaunty straw boater with a sprig of lavender tucked in the hatband.

The Colonel reached out and shook Ryan's hand vigorously, then shook Jack's, and after another moment, gave the bridegroom a hug.

He turned, kissed Cara on both cheeks, and stepped quickly away to a spot on the front bench next to Jack's mother and father and Bert.

Cara was dimly aware of all the faces watching theirs. She heard the minister's words, heard Jack's deep voice, firmly pledge to love, honor, and cherish her. She heard herself breathlessly promise to do the same.

"I now p.r.o.nounce y'all husband and wife," the minister said. He grinned at Jack. "She's all yours, buddy." He nodded at Cara. "And he's yours."

Jack Finnerty swept Cara into his arms. She felt her legs buckle, gasped as he dipped her backward, low to the floor, felt his warm lips on hers. When he finally released her, she stood unsteadily.

"Okay?" he asked, his hazel eyes crinkling at the corners.

"Okay," she a.s.sured him, breaking into a smile that lit up the room.

Ellie Lewis, standing to one side of the altar, exhaled for the first time that day.

The Colonel stood and shook hands with Bert again, as the guests stood and began to make their way to the bar at the back of the room. "Nice wedding," the Colonel said, doing his version of polite conversation. "I think Cara finally got it right this time, don't you?"

"Absolutely," Bert said. "I'm kind of an expert on these things. They both got it one hundred percent right."

ALSO BY MARY KAY ANDREWS.

Christmas Bliss.

Ladies' Night.

Spring Fever.

Summer Rental.

The Fixer Upper.

Deep Dish.

Savannah Breeze.

Blue Christmas.

Hissy Fit.

Little Bitty Lies.

Savannah Blues.

About the Author.

MARY KAY ANDREWS is the New York Times bestselling author of Ladies' Night, Spring Fever, Summer Rental, The Fixer Upper, Deep Dish, Blue Christmas, Savannah Breeze, Hissy Fit, Little Bitty Lies, and Savannah Blues. A former journalist for The Atlanta Journal Const.i.tution, she lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Visit her at www.marykayandrews.com.

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author's imagination or are used fict.i.tiously.

SAVE THE DATE. Copyright 2014 by Whodunnit, Inc. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

www.stmartins.com.

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