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Excerpt: Amber in Autumn

 

Chapter One

The century-old stone church was at its best, simply but tastefully decorated for a grand occasion. If guests recognized the lavender bows repurposed from the last wedding, barely a month ago, no one mentioned it. The organist stood on the dais, filing through her music, ready to take her place.

A few guests arrived, telling the young men at the door whether they wished to be seated on the bride’s or groom’s side. Amber Reyes gave the scene a final once-over. I believe we are going to pull this off. I had my doubts. It was time for her to take her place with the bridal party, so she gave the chapel a final approving nod and walked down the hall to the bright classroom that served as a bride’s room, redolent with the scents of fresh flowers.

A month ago, she’d served as maid of honor at the wedding of her girlhood best buddy, Paris Cutler, now married to Greg Frantz, Amber’s colleague and friend. Now she returned in the same role for Sunny Ray, her cousin, who was like a sister to her.

Sunny and her younger sister, Skye, had lived with Amber’s family since Sunny was eleven and Skye only nine. That was the year Amber’s mother rescued the girls from the Children of Rah cult and from their loving, but addicted and neglectful, mother.

Amber, who had always wanted a sister, had been thrilled. She and Sunny were so close in age that they were sometimes mistaken for fraternal twins. With their straight, dark brown hair, dark eyes, and slightly darker complexions—the result of one Latin and one Anglo parent for each—the assumption made sense. Meanwhile, people often thought that Skye—with her darker complexion, full lips, and curly hair—was fostered or adopted. That assumption always burned Skye, but amused the older girls. That must have contributed to Skye’s sense that she didn’t belong. How I wish I could take that all back!

Amber brushed that thought away as she walked down the hall. I can’t fix the past. Best to focus on the present. We have plenty going on right now.

“I believe everything is ready in there,” Amber announced as she entered the bride’s room. “How are we doing here?”

Sunny turned to her with a smile as bright as her name. “Things are coming along,” she answered. “I know you worried about pulling a wedding together this fast, but I always knew you’d manage it.”

“You had more faith in me than I did." But I wanted you to have a lovely wedding. You deserve that.

“Turn this way for a moment.” Olivia Reyes, who served as the mother of the bride, straightened the crown of white rosebuds and purple freesias. “There. Hold right there while I put some hairpins in.”

The bride obeyed, a serene smile lighting her face.

Amber said, “It helps that you and Paris and Skye are all the same dress size.”

“I fully agree.” Sunny beamed at Amber. “It means that Skye and Paris can wear bridesmaids’ dresses from Paris’s wedding. Then Paris made the generous offer to let me wear her wedding dress. If we hadn’t all been the same size, we wouldn’t have had that option.”

“Good job that Libby has a dress of her own, one we hope will fit in with the color scheme.” Amber bit her lip, choosing to keep her fussing from muddling Sunny’s big day but wondering about Sunny’s friend. “Sunny, have you heard from your friend, Libby, yet?”

“Yes,” Sunny answered. “She called from the cell phone pull-out. I told her that’s the only place on that windy road where she can get a signal. I asked her to call when she got there.”

“Super. How long ago was that?”

Olivia finished with the hairpins, answered for the bride. “I checked my watch. It’s been twelve minutes.”

“Then she should arrive any minute, but she’ll still have to get dressed.” Amber shook her head. “That’s cutting it close!” She tacked on a rather forced smile.

Sunny shrugged. “Libby just started her new job at that new boutique hotel in Sacramento. I’m sure she’s getting here as soon as she can. If it takes a little longer for us to be ready, we’ll just ask the organist to play another song.”

“I’m glad you can be so cool about this.” Amber slumped into a chair. “You’re the one who’s supposed to be nervous!”

Sunny responded with another sweet smile. “I’ve told you all along: I’m not worried about having a beautiful or perfect wedding. This is one day in our lives. It’s the marriage that follows that’s important…to both of us.”

“I’m glad you feel that way.” Amber straightened her own lavender dress. “Pulling together a wedding in three weeks usually doesn’t bring the best results.”

“I’ll be happy with however it goes, so long as I’m married to Evan when the ceremony ends.” Sunny turned to look at the women who attended her. “I can’t thank you all enough for what you’ve done. You know I never expected to have such a beautiful event. I always imagined that, if I married at all, it would be a simple ceremony in front of a county clerk.”

“We couldn’t allow that,” Olivia answered. “You may not have a father or mother, but you have us. We’re family and we want you to start this new phase of your life in the best way possible.”

“You’ve been wonderf—” Sunny broke off as Libby swept into the room.

“Five minutes and I’ll be ready to go.” Libby carried her dress over her shoulder.

Amber looked at her watch. “I’m glad you made it. We were getting worried.”

“I kept telling my new boss that I needed to roll. He kept adding ‘just one more thing’ and then ‘just one more’ after that. I got out as fast as I could.”

“We wouldn’t have started without you.” Sunny’s calm seemed to settle over everyone. “Go ahead and get ready. Take the time you need.”

Libby changed behind the privacy screen and stepped out a few minutes later.

“Whoa.” Amber’s eyes widened. “You meant it when you said your grape-colored dress would fit well with the purple and lavender we already have. It’s almost as if we planned this.”

Libby winked, her own smile sly. “Almost as if it was Destiny.”

Amber rolled her eyes. Raised in Destiny, California, she’d heard those jokes all her life. “Enough with the Destiny jokes. Are we all set?”

“Give me another minute to do something with this hair.” Libby tidied her bright red tresses into a thick braid. “This is as good as it gets,” she said, looking in the mirror. “I’m ready.”

“One detail.” Amber grabbed a white rosebud from the container of blossoms she’d saved for ‘just in case’ and tucked it into Libby’s braid. “There. All done.”

“Thanks.”

Amber grinned. “No problem!”

“Looks like we’re all ready,” Sunny said, looking around the room. “Amber, you can signal the organist to start the processional any time. Aunt Olivia, you agree?”

“Absolutely.” Olivia led the way as the members of the wedding party lined up in the hallway, preparing to enter the chapel. Amber peeked in and nodded to the organist.

The music changed. The minister, with Evan and his brother-in-law beside him, entered from the front of the chapel and took their places at the altar, Evan in a well-cut dark gray suit.

Amber remembered the discussion they’d had over what Evan should wear. Sunny had agreed with him that his best look was probably his deputy sheriff uniform, but Amber had begged him to buy a suit for this occasion. When Sunny thought of the wedding pictures they’d want to keep forever, she agreed. After that, Evan was all in. “Anything for my Sunny,” he’d declared. Now he stood waiting, looking toward the doorway with eager anticipation.

Aunt Olivia entered the chapel on the arm of her son, Amber’s older brother Tyler, who came to share this day with the family. Tyler seated her in the place reserved for the mother of the bride and took his own seat.

The bridesmaids came next. Libby entered first, unescorted, her grape-colored, tea-length dress a perfect complement to her startling red hair. Behind her came Sunny’s sister, Skye, in darker purple, with Amber following in lavender. They took their places beside the altar.

The music changed again, the audience stood, and Sunny entered, a vision in the wedding dress Paris had worn a month earlier, escorted by her proud Tio Rico, her Uncle Enrique, in the place of the father she’d never known. Together they made the stately walk to the front of the chapel. Enrique took Sunny’s hand and placed it in Evan’s. He leaned slightly toward Evan and, in a low stage whisper, said, “Take care of her, Son.”

“I will,” Evan answered soberly. “I promise.” The ceremony began.

“Who gives this woman in marriage?” the minister asked.

Enrique spoke strongly. “Her Aunt Olivia and I do.” He turned and took the seat beside his wife.

The minister welcomed everyone. The audience included a few friends of Evan’s who had driven in from Butte County and others from his new job in the Sacramento County Sheriff’s office. The rest of the room was filled with friends and neighbors from Destiny, most of whom had known Sunny since she was a little girl, all friends of the Reyes family.

After a few words about the importance of marriage and how traditional marriage created a tighter family and community bonds, the minister offered an invocation. Then he invited Evan’s other brother-in-law to give the reading the couple had chosen from First Peter, chapter four. He stepped to the microphone and read, “Above all, love each other deeply—”

Evan and Sunny held hands and gazed into one another’s eyes as the scriptural words swam around them. Beside her cousin and friend, Amber watched, barely hearing the few verses. I’m so happy for Sunny. She and Evan hurried into this, but they’re a good couple. They’ll find they have some problems as they get more acquainted, but they’ll work them out. The thought came to her, I wonder if this will ever happen for me? She banished it quickly. Stop it, Amber. This day isn’t about you.

But she found she couldn’t help thinking about the possibility of her own marriage, especially when her reasoning kicked in. It’s not as if Destiny is crawling with eligible men. Greg was about the only one left and he married Paris, not that Greg and I had anything going beyond the work we both do. She tried again to focus on the reading, but her mind kept ruminating, remembering her former boyfriend, the one she’d thought she would marry. Chad split the minute I took the Destiny job. Is it possible I’ll have to give up Destiny in order to find my own love story? The doubt hovered there, coloring her emotions as the reading ended.

Evan and Sunny had written their own vows. Evan reached into his inner coat pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. “It’s been said that attraction is a biochemical reaction and that infatuation can flare and die in a moment, but love, real love, is a choice. Today I choose you, Golden Sunny Ray, to be my wife, and I promise I will continue to choose you every day for the rest of our lives and even beyond. I choose you to be my companion, my lover, my partner in all our worldly affairs, and the mother of my future children.

“I promise you my total fidelity, the complete commitment of my body, heart, and soul, and all my worldly goods. I promise to care for and cherish you, to support your strengths and strengthen your weaknesses. Even on the days when we disagree or struggle with difficult decisions, I promise to choose you every day, forever and always.”

As he tucked the paper away, the wedding guests responded with “ahs” and “ohs.”

Sunny turned to Amber, who handed her the folded paper from her dress pocket, but Sunny surprised her. “With the good reverend’s permission, I have asked the Daughters of Destiny to sing the first half of my vows.” The crowd erupted into excited applause as five women, well-known to this crowd but increasingly known to the world, came forward.

Still on hiatus before their first cross-country tour, the Daughters of Destiny used a pitch pipe to find their notes and began singing:

Today I choose to pledge to you to make your life my own.

Today I choose to love you and to make your heart my home.

I choose to live close by your side each day throughout my life,

To take you as my husband and to be your wedded wife.

I choose you-oo-oo. I choose you.

I choose to be your partner, your lover, and your friend,

To love you when you’re feeling low and help your hurt unbend.

And when we disagree, my love, I’ll hold you closer still.

We’ll solve our problems patiently, let hot emotions chill.

I choose you-oo-oo. I choose you.

Sometime during the second verse, Camille picked up her guitar to strum a musical bridge before the group sang its final chorus. Guests swayed to the music while Sunny faced Evan, her hands in his, her eyes shimmering with tears. When the women finished their number to loud applause, they took their places in the audience, and Sunny began to read:

“Today I choose you, Evan Michael Millett, to be my husband, and I promise I will continue to choose you every day for the rest of our lives and even beyond. I choose you to be my companion, my lover, my partner in all our worldly affairs, and the father of my future children.

“I promise you my total fidelity, the complete commitment of my body, heart, and soul, and all my worldly goods. I will wear your ring on my finger, your name as my own, your love in my heart. I promise to care for and cherish you, to support your strengths and strengthen your weaknesses. Even on the days when we disagree or struggle with difficult decisions, I promise to choose you every day, forever and always.”

The congregation responded with joyous applause.

The minister looked out at the assembled guests. “I think that about covers it, don’t you?” Laughter rippled around the room. He turned to Evan. “Evan Michael Millett, do you take this woman, Golden Sunny Ray, to be your wedded wife, to have and to hold, forsaking all others, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish always?”

Evan’s voice was strong as he answered, “I do.”

“Golden Sunny Ray, do you take this man, Evan Michael Millett, to be your wedded husband, to have and to hold, forsaking all others, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish always?”

Sunny’s voice was equally strong. “I do.”

“Do you have the rings?” the minister asked. Evan’s best man reached into his pocket and retrieved the two rings the couple had picked.

The minister picked up one band. “This ring has no beginning and no end. Let it stand as a symbol of your everlasting love for one another.” He watched as the pair put the bands on each other.

That done, he looked to the assembled guests. “Now that Evan and Sunny have pledged their forever love for one another in the presence of this company and have formalized it with an exchange of promises and rings, I am pleased to announce that they are husband and wife, legally and lawfully joined together. Evan and Sunny, you may now kiss one another.”

Evan wasted no time in sweeping Sunny into his arms. The kiss was quick, more urgent than sweet, and both husband and wife came up grinning as everyone applauded.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr. and Mrs. Evan Millett!”

The applause continued as the newlyweds led the way down the aisle and into the sunlight outside. Guests followed them out, scattering birdseed. Enrique, in his role as the father of the bride, called out: “We’ll be busy taking some pictures here for a while. Please feel free to cross into the park and start enjoying the reception. The wedding party will join you soon.”

That brought another cheer and most of the guests filed across the street into the park. Amber, who had posed for wedding pictures earlier that week and again that morning, knew they wanted a few poses that included Libby. She helped organize everyone.

“Thanks, everyone,” Amber said as the photographer finished. “We can all go change now. I’ll see you at the reception in a few minutes.”

Approval rippled through the small group as they scattered to the various classrooms in the church where they’d left their less formal clothing. I’ll see you at the reception, Amber thought again as she followed the other women inside. Then she permitted herself one small, self-pitying thought: Maybe I should have followed Chad instead of letting him walk away. Maybe he’s the only chance I’ll ever get. Now I’m going to be that ‘older single woman’ people talk about, the principal at the school who spends her time raising other people’s children. She shook the thought away. Enough of that. I’m twenty-six. That doesn’t qualify me for spinsterhood yet. I need to go play hostess at the party. I can worry about my own love life some other time.

If only she could make herself listen.

Susan Aylworth writes sweet and clean, contemporary romance novels set in small-town America (USA).

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