Part 1: The Wedding Rings, Ch. 3

READ PART 1: THE WEDDING RINGS, CHAPTER 2.

The wedding was set at 4:00 pm. Armageddon, apparently, had been scheduled to go off at precisely five in the morning. We emerged from the guest house in search of breakfast to find the house in an uproar. But it was an organized—and glamorous—uproar, with people sweeping in and out of rooms, up and down the gigantic staircase in preparation for the event, assisted by an army of housemaids, nannies, masseuses, dressmakers, hairstylists and makeup artists, plus a small battalion of wedding photographers and videographers.

The three of us sat at an ornate table on the patio while a maid served us breakfast, probably because the dining area was covered in a layer of fancy sweets and assorted wedding bric-a-brac. Tita Cathy was currently ensconced with the bride, helping her get ready. A masseuse-hairstylist-makeup artist team approached Nanay to schedule her in, and they smilingly offered their services to Ate Grace and me as well, although they addressed their offer mostly to my sister. Before yesterday, I wouldn’t even have noticed it. People paying more attention to my sisters was just something I’d taken for granted; it was simply the way things were. But as I sat there watching these beauty experts shower my mother and sister with compliments while sparing me a cursory glance, a small, heretofore undiscovered part of me began to ache. Why couldn’t I look like Nanay and Ate Grace and Faith? Why did I have to look like this? Why did I have to be the way I was when it was gradually becoming clear that, in the eyes of a lot of people, the way I was…wasn’t good enough?

You’re great just the way you are, Joy.

All of a sudden, I was overcome with the need to see Christian. Everything just felt better when Christian was around. So after breakfast, I slipped into the house, and began going from room to room in search of my friend. Several years later, I’d get to go to a five-star hotel for the first time, but I don’t remember feeling quite as awestruck and intimidated then as I’d felt wandering around Christian’s house. Everything was all burgundy tile and polished wood; huge paintings and ceramic vases; fluffy carpets and super-high-tech electronic appliances and furniture that looked as if no human hands had ever touched them—and there was so much of them. I soon began to feel disoriented and panicky as I got more and more lost. I tried to stop one of the people rushing about to ask for directions, but nobody noticed me. Then somebody stepped on my foot and another person bumped into me, sending me stumbling against a door.

The door opened, revealing the person I least wanted to see. “What’re you doing here?” Nikki demanded suspiciously.

“Um, I’m looking for Christian,” I answered, trying to sound confident without much success.

She crossed her arms and eyed me with contempt. “Really? Well, you can’t see him. He got sick last night because of you, and now he has to stay in bed until the wedding. I heard Tita Cathy tell the yayas to make sure you stayed away from him. If he can’t be ring-bearer at Tita Joanne’s wedding, it’ll be your fault and everyone knows it.”

I felt as though I’d turned as hollow and fragile as one of those ceramic vases scattered about. “He’s sick?” I whispered, hoping she’d laugh and tell me it was just a nasty joke. It’s my fault. I should’ve just gone swimming. It’s because I was a silly cry-baby that Christian got sick. It’s all my fault.

“Are you deaf? I just said so,” she snapped, glaring at me so spitefully I found myself retreating a step. “And by the way? I lied,” she went on, an unpleasant smile crossing her face. “I’m not sorry I called you ugly, because you are. You don’t deserve to be near Christian. He’s a prince and you’re an ugly little pig who’s stupid to boot.”

“Who’s at the door, darling?”

The door widened and Nikki’s mother appeared, looking down at me with her nostrils. “Oh, it’s you. Do get back outside, please. Really, some people don’t know how to make their children behave…”

They both disappeared from view as the door was shut firmly in my face. I turned around, wondering what I was supposed to do next, and overheard some of the housemaids’ conversation. There’s that child, what’s she doing here?…daughter of Ma’am’s friend…so different from her mother and sister…what a homely little girl…

Needless to say, I didn’t get to see Christian at all. I didn’t get to see much of anyone, except my mom and my sister and, later, the team of beauty experts who came to ensure that the three of us were suitably dressed, coiffed and styled for this grand event. When she asked where I’d been, I told Ate Grace I’d gone to the tree-house to play by myself, and had to spend a good ten minutes apologizing to her for not inviting her along. It was half-true, anyway. I had gone to the tree-house, but instead of playing, I sat in a hidden nook and cried with the hem of my skirt crammed against my mouth so no one would hear. Never again would I let my cry-baby ways be a bother to anyone.

When we got to the church, what we found there was something straight out of a fairy tale. Lengths of white and pale green tulle bordered the pews along the aisle, interspersed with bouquets of white, pink and peach roses and tiny, golden bells. White, pink and peach rose petals were scattered all over the red carpet in the aisle. Tulle bows and roses entwined with more golden bells were pinned to the walls and pillars of the church, and more spilled over in breathtaking profusion from the altar, where a plush, maroon bench and kneeler awaited the bride and groom. Choir music floated down from the loft, mingling with the sweet fragrance of roses. And the pews were filled with so many exquisitely-dressed people who were either celebrities, business tycoons or high government officials that it rendered my sister and me semi-paralyzed with awe.

Still, I nearly burst with pride when I watched Nanay walk down the aisle on the arm of a foreign diplomat, fairly glowing in a shimmering, golden gown with her hair swept up and pinned with tiny, yellow gemstones. Looking at her, you wouldn’t have been able to tell that she’d borrowed the gown from a co-worker because she didn’t own anything fancy enough, and that the gemstones were cheap paste jewels. Our own dresses, too, had either been borrowed from a relative or rented from Shania’s Boutique a block away from our street. Ate Grace wore a simple but pretty lavender gown with a purple sash around her waist. I, on the other hand, had been stuffed into a powder-blue confection with blue roses clustered on my sleeves, neckline and waist. More roses dotted my multi-petticoated skirts, the kind of skirts that rose five inches off my lap every time I sat down. Shania’s outfits, regrettably, had never been known for their understated elegance. Nothing much could be done about my hair—the hairstylist wringing his hands despairingly had made that clear—so a blue headband was found and stuck on my head, and that was that.

Once again, we found ourselves sitting in the back pews, far away from Nanay or anyone remotely familiar. The good news was, sitting in the back row gave us the advantage of being able to see the members of the processional before everyone else—that is, when the swarm of photographers, videographers and assistants let anyone else get a glimpse. That meant I got to be one of the first to see Christian make his entrance, looking dashing and manly in his pure white barong tagalog and black pants, with a peach rose corsage pinned to his left breast. I stared openly at him, unable to help myself. After I’d cried myself out and my normal sense of reason returned, I’d decided that Nikki was just being melodramatic and creepy when she’d called Christian a prince. Looking at him now, I had to admit she had a point. He looked every inch a prince: handsome, charming, elegant and—

And groggy-eyed. Earlier, Nanay‘d told us that Christian had come down with a fever that night, and had been sniffling and sneezing all morning, thus corroborating Nikki’s story. Still, he’d been determined not to disappoint his aunt on her most special day. So here he was, packed to the gills with decongestants and acetaminophen and obviously suffering from the side-effects, concentrating with all his might on his task as he proceeded to the altar carrying the lacy pillow containing the rings. He’d have made it, too, if he hadn’t sneezed violently half-way down the aisle. Fortunately, the rings had been tied to the pillow with ribbons, so they didn’t tumble to the floor and get lost and possibly jinx the marriage forever. Unfortunately, in his relief at not having lost the rings he must have forgotten where he was, because he stopped dead in his tracks in order to tuck the rings back into the pillow and wipe his runny nose on the sleeve of his delicate, expensive barong.

There was a wave of tittering, and a woman who sounded unsurprisingly like Tita Cathy hissed, “Christian Dominic!”

He jerked and glanced around, his face paling when he realized what he was doing. I held my breath, wondering how he was going to get through this without crumbling into a useless pile of nerves. I shouldn’t have worried though, because he managed to pull off a remarkable save, grinning his cutest, most puppy-esque grin and rubbing the back of his head in an adorably rueful, “can you believe I did that?” gesture. There was just no way to resist that face. The audience went “awww” and laughed again, this time in sympathy and admiration, and Christian continued on with no further mishaps. The lady in front of me even whispered to her seatmate, “Charming little scamp. He’s going to be such a heartbreaker someday, I can just see it.”

After that, the rest of the processional seemed almost dull, even Nikki’s sparkling debut in her white and peach gown and matching basket of roses. Except, of course, for the arrival of the bride, which was as splendid and moving a moment as a year of assiduous strategizing and a mountain of money could produce. It was enough to make Ate Grace nod her head and murmur, “Yeah, I want my wedding to be like this when I grow up,” although she sounded less like a dreamy maiden and more like a customer at McDonalds deciding between a cheeseburger and a Big Mac.

The ceremony was as boring as ever. Everybody thought the wedding vows and the kiss were the bees’ knees, judging from the emotional responses and the applause. For me though, unable to see what was going on in front, it was the music that made the event. The choir sounded like angels, and I embarrassed my sister repeatedly by singing along with each song I knew and humming the ones I didn’t know. I ignored her scorching glares and pinches on my arm; it was either sing or fall asleep, still propped upright by my voluminous skirts. I later learned that Christian had fallen asleep, succumbing at last to the cocktail of drugs in his bloodstream, and the best man had to take the pillow from him and deliver the rings to the bride and groom himself. Oh, and one of the flower-girls had peed in her fancy princess gown and had to be rushed out of the church, wailing like a banshee. Imagine my regret when I found out it wasn’t Nikki.

The fairytale continued during the reception, which was held in a lush poolside garden illuminated by almost a hundred candles and thousands of fairy lights and golden lanterns. Pale green satin flowed over pure white tablecloths, and each table sported a tall candlestick surrounded by a ring of white, pink and peach roses and golden bells. More peach satin and bouquets of roses and bells adorned the backs of the fragile-looking chairs. The wedding bower looked as if it had been spun out of clouds and whipped cream, and as in the church, the cool night breeze was perfumed with the scent of roses, and filled with the clinking of glasses, romantic music courtesy of the same choir from church accompanied by a string quartet, and joyous congratulations for the newlyweds. It was a fantasy come to life, and like my sister, I swore that one day, I’d marry the man I loved while surrounded by such beauty and enchantment.

Once again, Nanay was seated with the other sponsors at the large presidential table that was second only to the wedding bower in magnificence. Once again, Ate Grace and I were stuck at a table somewhere on the fringes. I caught a glimpse of Christian during the wedding entourage’s processional. He’d changed from his barong into a black dress jacket over a gray silk shirt—a good choice for someone who seemed to attract dirt to him like iron filings to a magnet. Once again, he managed to look completely prince-like in the outfit. I was even gladder to see that his nap had done some good, and that he was looking a little more alert than before. But he and his family were seated near the bower at the center. I couldn’t even see the tables near him from where we were. The idea of walking up to him, horribly conspicuous in my upside-down cake of a dress and frying in the heat of his entire family’s disapproval, terrified me. But he hadn’t searched me out either—he hadn’t even noticed me in fact, or if he had he was doing a terrific job of not letting it show. My heart grew heavier and heavier. He was probably mad at me for causing him to get sick on this important day. Maybe he’d listened to his mother and cousin and aunt, and decided that he and I couldn’t be friends after all. Maybe he’d figured that we were just…too different.

Maybe he’d decided that the world was full of girls who were thin, pretty, rich and well-mannered—girls who were far more worthy to be friends with a prince like him.

My eyes stung at the thought, and I focused on arranging the cloth napkin on my poufy lap to keep myself from bursting into tears right there at the table. I somehow managed to keep from humiliating myself, but afterward I couldn’t seem to muster enough interest in the goings-on, wondrous as they were. I made appropriate noises throughout Ate Grace’s running commentary on the stuff going on in front, which she was able to view from her position—a bunch of speeches and love songs; a slideshow presentation on how the couple got together, a story my sister and I already knew; the bride throwing her bouquet to the ladies; the groom throwing the bride’s garter to the men; the cutting of the huge, tiered cake; the releasing of the doves, and so on. The food was wonderful, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember what I’d eaten even though I’d dutifully shoveled everything that had been put in front of me into my mouth. The other people we shared our table with, if they spoke to us at all, mostly addressed my sister, which allowed me to sink further into my funk in relative peace.

By the time dinner had ended and a live band had replaced the choir and string quartet for the newlyweds’ first dance, all the guests below the age of twelve were feeling restless and bored. Some of Christian’s cousins whom we’d played with stumbled upon us and asked us if we wanted to play with them inside an empty convention hall nearby. Or more accurately, they asked my sister and generously allowed me to tag along. Never one to turn away from a contest of any kind, Ate Grace eagerly stood up, scowling impatiently when she noticed I wasn’t following.

“You go ahead, Ate,” I said as I struggled to rise. “Um, I have to go to the bathroom.”

She shrugged and was gone by the time I’d wrestled my skirts out from underneath the table, my headband falling over my eyes from my exertions. I trudged toward the bathroom, a plump, forlorn little figure in poufy blue slinking through the shadows, peering through the window into the convention hall where Ate Grace and the other kids, including Nikki, were playing a lively game of caterpillar. I couldn’t see Christian among the kids but figured he was in there somewhere. Very likely he was the one who’d instigated the game in the first place. It occurred to me that I could see him again if I joined the game, but the thought of Nikki driving me away held me back.

Oh well, nobody said I couldn’t watch from the window, right?

Cheered by the thought, I was almost skipping when I emerged from the bathroom, ready to pick out a spot where I could watch Christian. Instead, I nearly had a heart attack when a figure popped up from the shadows. It took me a few minutes to realize that it was the boy himself, looking a little nervous. Wait a minute. Christian? Nervous?

“You scared me,” I chided him shakily. I must have been really scared, too. It was the only thing I could think of to explain why my heartbeat was showing no sign of slowing down.

He grinned unrepentantly, looking more like the Christian I knew. “Sorry. I was waiting for you.”

I hid a grin myself when he started to wipe his nose on his jacket sleeve, paused as if remembering something, then pulled out a crumpled handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose on it. Then my grin evaporated when I recalled it was my fault he was like this. I dropped my gaze to my poufy skirts and said in a tiny voice, “Are you mad at me? I’m really sorry you got sick.”

“Huh?” He started to laugh and ended up coughing instead. “What’re you talking about? Come on, I want to show you something.”

He grabbed my hand and strode off, pulling me after him. Feeling faintly bewildered yet ridiculously happy, I let him lead me past the reception area, the dance floor, and the presidential table where I caught a glimpse of Nanay and Tita Cathy watching the two of us with identical smiles. We headed round to the other side of the swimming pool toward a row of darkened cabanas with white, cotton curtains drawn. For some reason, one of them had its curtains hanging loose all around and was glowing with a warm, golden light, looking like a giant lantern. He stopped in front of the glowing cabana, wiping his nose with his jacket sleeve again, evidently forgetting all about his handkerchief. “Um, it’s in here,” he mumbled, gesturing with one hand.

Parting the curtains, I climbed into the cabana and blinked. One of the tables in the reception area had apparently lost its center-piece because it was right there in the middle of the bamboo table, the roses spreading out in a sunburst of white, pink and peach, the candle flame flickering as Christian clambered in after me. A small box of Kleenex lay upon the table as well, but that one was easy to figure out when he snatched up a tissue, sneezed into it, then tossed the used wad back on the table. Okay, he was kind of a slob, but for some reason, it only added to his appeal. Christian was a prince, but he wasn’t a perfect, fairytale Prince Charming. He was a slob of a prince, but more importantly, he was real. And he wasn’t mad at me. He wasn’t trying to avoid me. He was still my friend.

He looked at me then looked away, blushing. “You could, you know, sit down or something.”

I reddened myself when I realized that all I’d been doing was standing there staring at him. “Oh, okay,” I said, perching on the bench and willing my skirts not to rise up and do battle with me, while he slid into the bench next to me. For a few moments, neither of us said anything, the silence broken only by his intermittent sniffling and coughing. I fiddled with one of the roses, feeling strangely shy. Well, shy for me wasn’t new, but after the way we’d talked so easily last night, I didn’t expect we’d lose so much ground and revert to strangers in less than a day. No, not strangers. He’d brought me here to show me this wonderful mini-fairy cove after all, but he seemed…different somehow. So stiff and uncomfortable it was starting to worry me.

Finally, he groaned and leaned back until his head hit the window frame. “Heh, this is harder than I thought,” he said with a rueful chuckle when I gave him a curious look.

What’s hard? Telling me not to hang around him anymore? At the painful thought, tears once again threatened to overflow. I quickly lowered my head but it was too late; he caught sight of my tear-filled eyes and blanched. “No, don’t cry, Joy, I didn’t mean that, please don’t cry.”

“I’m not crying,” I informed him, blinking rapidly so I wouldn’t be accused of lying.

“I’m sorry,” he said miserably, pulling a Kleenex from the box and handing it to me.

I crushed the tissue in my fist. “I’m not crying. I won’t cry. I won’t ever be a crybaby again.”

“Why not?”

I looked at him as if he was crazy, which he was. “Because it’s stupid. I got you into trouble all because I was a cry-baby. Ate Grace’s right. I’m going to learn to stand up for myself.”

He frowned for a moment as he considered this, then his face brightened. “I know! How about being a cry-baby around me? I don’t like it when you cry, but anytime you feel like crying, then come to me. I won’t tell anyone. And by the way, you’re wrong about getting me into trouble. My mom says I do that pretty well on my own,” he added, sounding almost proud of himself.

I had to laugh. “Yeah, I guess you do.”

“But you’re allowed to be a cry-baby only around me.”

“Huh?” What on earth did he mean by that?

He colored again and stared at the ceiling, rubbing his nose absently with his sleeve. “Hey Joy, I wanna ask you something.”

“What?”

“Will you marry me?”

Of all the things he could have asked that would have taken me by surprise, this one should have been last on the list. Nevertheless, I felt my breath catch and my head go light and my heart beat funny, but funny in a nice way. I took in the intent way he was studying the shadows on the rafters as if he didn’t care at all what my answer would be, and the movement of his throat as he swallowed convulsively, revealing his nonchalance for the façade it was. Are you actually serious about this?

I wasn’t aware I’d spoken out loud until he turned his head so that our eyes met. “Yeah, I’m serious. Will you marry me?” he asked again.

“B-but why?” I sputtered, feeling the conversation begin to spin out of my control. “Why are you asking me this?”

“Why would a boy ask a girl to marry him?” His gaze, unwavering and intense, never left mine.

I ignored the fluttery-warm feeling bursting to life inside me. “I can’t marry you.”

“Why not?”

“Because we’re too young! We’re only eight!” I exclaimed, reduced to pointing out the obvious.

He grinned again. “So we’ll wait until we’re older, then we’ll get married.”

“But you can’t—I’m not—”

“You’re not what?”

I closed my eyes and ducked my head in shame. “I’m not…pretty. I’m fat and dark and ugly, and Nikki said—ah! Ouch!”

I yelped when he leaned close all of a sudden and yanked me toward him by tugging at a cluster of roses at my neckline, making our foreheads bump together painfully. For the first time, I was grateful for all the layers of petticoat netting underneath my skirt, which helped keep me from losing my balance on that bench. “Are you still thinking about what she said to you?” he demanded.

“I, um, well…m-maybe a little?” I stammered, surprised and a tiny bit frightened. Gosh, he looked angry. Was this how he looked when he told Nikki off yesterday? It was no wonder she cried.

“Yeah, well, knock it off,” he snapped. “Forget what my lying, bratty cousin said, and just trust me. You’re not ugly at all. In fact, you’re—you’re cute.” He released me and straightened, his anger draining away as his face turned red again. “You’re really cute, Joy. Especially in that dress. I wanted to tell you so earlier but you’ve been kinda hard to track down.”

“Oh.” He’d been looking for me, too. He thought I was cute, even in The Dress that Ate the Little Girl’s Bottom Half. It was…amazing. “Thanks, Christian. Really, thank you.” I smiled shyly back, reaching up to rub the spot on his forehead that had come into sharp contact with mine, using it as an excuse to avoid his gaze when I confessed breathlessly, “I think you’re really cute, too.”

“Yeah, I can tell from the way you keep staring at me,” he replied matter-of-factly, his grin overpowering the candlelight. Then his smug, am-I-a-handsome-prince-or-what expression was ruined when he sneezed explosively and lunged for the tissue box. I burst out laughing, unable to help myself. He laughed as well, but had to stop when another coughing fit overtook him.

“You’re so gross,” I told him, still giggling.

He scrubbed his nose with several tissues and stuck his tongue out. “Liar. You just said I was cute a while ago.” I rolled my eyes at that but he’d become serious once more, turning aside to poke at the candle flame, making the shadows dance. “But that’s not enough, is it?” he murmured thoughtfully before pinning me with a look. “What kind of man do you want to marry?”

“What?”

He repeated the question, which didn’t make it any easier for my poor brain to come up with an answer to a question it had heretofore never considered. I shouldn’t even be thinking about this until I’m at least twenty, I thought with some exasperation. “I want to marry…” What? Who? Who do I want to marry?

Then I thought about Tatay, and about Nanay‘s story of how Tita Joanne and Tito Ericson fell in love, and the words came tumbling out. “I want to marry a man who’ll work hard and do his best for me and our family. I want a man who’d wash the dishes with me and feed the dog with me and do ordinary stuff with me just so he could spend time with me. I want a man who’s smart and good in school and funny and cute, but not so cute he’d have so many girlfriends he’d just forget about me. I want a man who’s kind and good and brave and honest. That’s the kind of man I want to marry.”

By then, even my neck felt hot. I lapsed into an embarrassed silence, shocked by my own outpouring and wondering where it had all come from. Well, that sounded like a lengthy list of qualifications. Maybe now he’d decide I was too picky and change his mind about this marriage thing.

He was quiet for so long I began to worry that he had changed his mind. Then I squeaked when he slammed his hand on the table and jumped to his feet. When the resulting coughing fit had passed, he grinned down at me with a mixture of sunny confidence and pure determination. “Okay, I got it. I’ll grow up quick and become all that for you. I’ll be the man you’re going to marry. But you have to wait for me until then, okay? You’re not allowed to fall in love with anyone else. You promise?”

“Christian—”

He took my hands and gripped them tight. “You promise?”

I looked at our joined hands then raised my face to his. His eyes bored into mine, hopeful and serious and certain and scared all at once. It was all there, how much my answer meant to him. In the flickering, golden light, he looked so handsome it was almost painful to see, and all at once it hit me that this boy—this gorgeous, charming, dashing prince who was kind of a slob and had weird, obsessive tendencies—had just asked me to promise myself to him. As his future wife. For reasons I couldn’t yet allow myself explore because they were too new, too mysterious and too wonderful. And in that time and place, there really was only one answer I could give him.

“Yes, I promise.”

He exhaled, blinked a few times, then grinned so hugely his face nearly split in half. “Yes! Really? That’s great! I was afraid you’d—wow, that’s great! Oh wait, I almost forgot.”

Releasing my hands, he reached inside his jacket, pulled out a small, black velvet box and thrust it at me. Puzzled, I opened the box to reveal a pair of identical rings made from intertwined silver knots. “Wow, they’re so pretty. What’re these for?” I wondered, lifting up one of the rings.

“They’re wedding rings. Okay, wedding-promise rings,” he amended when I gave him a look. “I don’t think they’re the kind of rings you wear, but they’re the only pair of rings I could find that looked exactly alike. And I searched all morning in Mommy’s old stuff, too.”

Well, that explained why he’d been so scarce. It was kind of funny imagining how Tita Cathy would react when she found out her sick son had been scrounging among piles of junk looking for rings when she’d thought he was resting. I stared down at the rings, admiring the way they gleamed in the candlelight, feeling the fluttery-warm sensation that was flooding through me begin to overflow and envelope the two of us. Surrendering completely to the feeling, I smiled and offered the box up to him. “So what do we do now?”

He smiled back and answered, “We put them on each other, of course.” He took one of the rings and reached for my left hand.

“Wait!”

He stopped and looked at me.

“You have to kiss it first. For good luck,” I said, blushing furiously.

He smiled again and nodded, then touched the ring to his lips before sliding it onto my ring finger. It hung loosely, it being at least twice the size of my finger. We both regarded it with baffled dismay, as though it was supposed to magically shrink to fit my finger, then we looked at each other and laughed. “I guess you can’t wear it after all,” he said apologetically. “One day I’ll give you a real wedding ring, Joy. One that actually fits you.”

I shook my head, cradling my hand against my chest. “I don’t care if I can’t wear it. I’ll keep it with me forever.”

Then it was my turn to take the other ring, press a kiss upon it, and slide it onto his finger, where it swung like a choker. I can’t believe I’m doing this, I thought as our fingers intertwined, the silver rings clinking and sliding and growing warm between our palms. I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m so happy right now. I’m so happy with him.

As long as it’s Christian, I’m happy.

“Okay, we’ve done the rings. What’s next?” I said, hoping he couldn’t hear the pounding of my heart.

He looked up from our hands and gave me a warm, crooked smile. “What’s next is I get to kiss my bride.”

I watched him lower his head toward mine, and instead of leaping off the bench and running away from this weirdo who was trying to give me a cootie-infestation, I just lifted my face and closed my eyes. His lips were warm and soft, and they pressed against mine with an aching sweetness. The kiss lasted the span of a single breath, then we were looking at each other again, blinking a little dazedly.

“Joy?” he said hoarsely.

“Yeah?”

“I think I lo—”

“Boo-ya! So this is where you snuck off to. Whoa, what’re you two doing in here?”

The curtain was abruptly swept aside, and Ate Grace and Christian’s cousins spilled through the opening in a tangle of heads and arms and torsos. The sight of the candle-and-roses center-piece, the box of Kleenex and the heap of used tissues on the table stopped them short, while the sight of me sitting on the bench with Christian standing over me, our faces fire-engine red and our left hands clasped together, caused a collective loss of jaw muscle control. Coming up from behind, Nikki pushed her way through the throng, took one look at us, and screamed.

“S-so hey, Christian, what’re you two really doing in here?” one of the older boys asked with strained casualness while Nikki threw a fit and was quickly dragged away.

Grinning roguishly, Christian raised our joined hands to show them the identical silver rings on our fingers. “What does it look like we’re doing? Joy and I just got married. Aren’t you going to give us presents?”

READ PART 1: THE WEDDING RINGS, CHAPTER 4.

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