By Christy Gronlund
“Alright everyone,” Philomena Clark clapped. “Let’s place the tables four across then three across then four etc. until we fill up our space.”
At her instructions, the room exploded into a cacophony of bumps and clatter as her staff unloaded the round tables from their carts and arranged them in the desired pattern. The polished wood floors that at first looked barren and desolate were soon crowded with rows of pressboard tables balanced by spindly steel legs. Not much of an improvement but it was a start.
“Mena?” Veronica, her assistant, pointed to a cart filled with roses, carnations and baby’s breath. “Do you want a single flower on each table or a bouquet?”
“Fill each vase with one red rose surrounded by three pink carnations. Frame them with a sprig of baby’s breath.”
Veronica nodded and hurried away.
Mena watched the rest of her staff drape the first table with a pink cloth topping it with a smaller white one then placed eight chairs around the circumference with practiced precision before moving on to the next area.
“Perfect,” Mena said.
“We were taught by the best, boss,” said Henry, a reliable if not completely reverent worker. He turned to the next table in the area.
This will look great. Mena placed a round mirror at the center of each table. Veronica, close on her heels, placed a bouquet atop.
“The last thing we need are the balloons.” Mena surveyed the area. “Why don’t we tie them to the lights that line the wall?”
“On it, boss.” Henry headed to the far corner and began the process of filling red, white and silver balloons with helium. Fifteen minutes later the room started to look like a valentine’s card rather than the dark hollow place she had entered just moments ago.
Regardless, the change didn’t lift her spirits as she had hoped. She sighed. As luck would have it, she was here to work. It didn’t matter that she didn’t have a date. Not one bit. She chewed her bottom lip. This bash was going to be a success. Nothing could spoil this weekend.
“Hey, Mena, are you ready for me to set up the staging area for the game?” Veronica asked.
“No, I think Tina wants Angelique to have a say in that so let’s leave it be for now.”
Mena took one last glance around the room where Henry was putting up the last bunch of balloons. There wasn’t much more she could do until she met with Angelique. Maybe she should find her brother. Sean had been very cryptic about his news. He insisted it was too big to tell her over the phone but important enough to meet her at the lodge this weekend. An act so unlike him that she didn’t know whether to feel alarmed or excited.
“Phil!” A silky voice spoke behind her. Not the thin raspy voice of her brother but a rich full-bodied one. She stiffened. A deep hollow yearning spread through her, tempered by a sharp burst of irritation. Only one person she knew sounded like that and he had broken her heart nine years ago. Not that she would have admitted it to him. He only thought of her as his best friend’s younger sister.
“Don’t call me that.” She whirled around. Nate Sanders hadn’t changed much. Still had the same perfectly tousled brown hair. The kind a girl liked to run her fingers through. The same piercing, bottle green eyes. The kind that could see right through a girl even if they never could ferret out her true feelings. He stood before her, long and lean, clad in a dark blue business suit holding a drink that looked suspiciously like scotch and soda.
“Come on, don’t be that way.” He held up his arms in a half shrug, half ‘what could I have possibly done?’ gesture.
“You know I hate being called that.” Especially by him. When he said it, even the dress she’d made sure clung to every womanly curve couldn’t stave off the feeling of androgyny. Even if he could never see her as feminine, couldn’t he at least pretend? Just once she longed to be looked at as if she were a woman fully grown instead of his friend’s kid sister. Was that too much to ask? Instead his expression held the same quirky, devil-may-care look it always did when he glanced her way.
“What? No love for your brother’s best bud? Come on give me a hug.”
Without giving her a chance to respond to his entreaty his arms enfolded her in a bear hug. She leaned in. How annoyingly perfect her head fit in the crook of his neck. He smelled of cinnamon and nutmeg. Like Christmas. Just as she gave in to the private luxury of his hold, he set her back with both hands, smiling. “Man, you’ve grown. How long has it been?”
“A couple of years.” Nine years and three months. But what sane person keeps track of things like that? “What are you doing here?” she demanded more sharply than she’d intended.
“I came with Sean. Thought I could get in a bit of skiing.”
“Oh.” Her eyes traveled to his ring finger. It was bare. To her annoyance, relief flooded her. How pathetic. Unaware of the awkward moment churning within her, Nate blithely continued.
“Sean said you were working this gig. He didn’t mention that you were the big bad boss lady.”
“He’s more of a ‘find out as you go’ kind of guy. By the way, have you seen him?”
Nate looked around the room. He shrugged. “He’s a little preoccupied at the moment. So I thought I’d keep his little sister company.”
His eyes met hers and her heart stopped. For one small second, it seemed she was the only one in the room. Like he wanted more from her. She shook her head. Impossible. And just as quickly, the impression fled. His ‘I don’t take life seriously’ smile returned leaving a hollow space in her chest. She cleared her throat. “Ahh, I have to get back to work.”
“Right, hope to see you later.” He patted her on the shoulder and then he was gone.
Nate sat on the bar stool absently watching the television, vaguely aware that the Cornhuskers were getting a beat down by the Buffalos in basketball game that had most of the other patrons cheering heartily. His meeting with Philomena hadn’t gone well. His fault, no doubt, but old habits were hard to break. Especially where she was concerned.
“Hey handsome, buy me a drink?” A shapely blonde, slid onto the bar stool next to him hooking her stilettos on the bottom rung.
“Hi Sandra,” he said without enthusiasm. “Where’s Sean?”
She placed both elbows on the bar and peered at him. He squirmed. Sandra was too intuitive for his taste. “Oh. You know Sean, always one more thing to do. He’ll be down in a minute. What’s eating you?”
“Nothing.” He took a long swig of his drink, allowing the liquid to scorch a nasty path to his gullet. “Hey, bartender can I have another?”
“Are you sure?” Sandra cocked her head to the side. “This isn’t like you, drinking by yourself.”
“I’m fine.” He waved her off.
She started to say something but the bartender plopped Nate’s drink down, then looked at Sandra. “What can I get for you, ma’am?”
“I’ll have a chardonnay, thank you.”
Nate returned his attention to the game determined to ignore Sandra’s inquisition. Unfortunately, she just wouldn’t leave it alone.
“Out with it, Nate.”
“Just because you’re Sean’s fiancée doesn’t give you the right to pry into my business.”
“Fair enough,” she said slowly. “But I refuse to let you ruin my engagement weekend with some dark, broody drunken spree.”
But Nate had ceased listening. His attention was on Phil as she passed the bar entrance.
“Philomena Clark.” The object of their discussion was quickly disappearing. He almost called out but thought better of it. Not with Sandra and her prying eyes. A loud cackle drew his attention back to Sandra. Her laughter was so infectious, he couldn’t help but smile back. “What?”
“That’s Sean’s sister?” She slapped his arm with the back of her hand. “And you like her.”
“Come on, she’s Sean’s little sister.”
“Right, and you were looking at her like a little sister too.” Sarcasm dripped generously from her lips. Yep, too intuitive for her own good. “So let me guess, you never made a move.”
His first thought was to deny her notion again. But he had come here to see Philomena. Once Sandra learned the truth, he would never hear the end of it. Coming clean now would save a lot of headache later. “No.”
“If you hadn’t noticed.” Nate fingered his drink. “She’s Sean’s sister. If I hurt her, he’d kill me.”
She tossed her head back and chuckled. “This is rich. Our Nathan, the man who can melt an ice princess into bed with the heat of one look. I didn’t know you were so cowardly.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way.”
Her gaze met him straight on. “I would.” She stared at him a moment longer before a sly smile tipped her lips. “But maybe we can change that.” She grabbed his hand. “Come on big boy. Time to grow a pair.”
Mena surveyed the ballroom one last time. Balloons hovered around the perimeter tied with ribbon curled at the ends. Flowers blossomed in the center of each table awaiting the patrons who would attend the big event. Eight chairs with white coverlets, lined the far end of the room ready for the Nearlywed game. She had to admit the scene was picture perfect with all the pinks, reds, silver and white. All that was needed was pixie dust and a fairy godmother to make her own wish come true. Sadly, those items were at a low premium.
After she’d spotted Nate with that stunning blonde, Mena knew he hadn’t changed from the boy who thumped his chest declaring “Us wild stallions must roam free.” No matter how many years passed, his actions demonstrated he still wasted no time tracking down a new playmate. The last she’d seen of those two, they were racing hand in hand from the bar. Her eyes misted over blurring the festive colors into grey. She wiped away her tears. No matter what, she would enjoy this evening even with its bitter epiphany if it killed her.
“There you are, Phil. I’ve been looking all over for you.” This time there was no mistaking her brother’s nasal voice.
She pasted on a smile and turned to greet him, but before she could stop her momentum she threw herself in his arms. “Sean.”
His arms tightened around her. “Hey, Phil. What is this, tears? From the tough, tomboy sister who broke her arm when she was thrown off her bicycle while charging off a ramp and never cried?” The more gently he spoke the harder she cried.
He never let go of his hold. Finally, she sniffed and stood back, looking down at the floor. “No.”
“Liar, come here.”
She ran into his arms again willing herself to stop crying. This wasn’t his fault after all. There was no need to ruin his evening. “I’m just tired.”
Over his shoulder she saw Nate walking in with his blonde bimbo in tow. He was carrying flowers. Not just flowers. Freesias. Mena’s favorite and he was probably going to give them to his new girl Du Jour. Mena’s hands curled into fists. How much worse could this night get?
“Sean.” Great, the blonde knew her brother. That meant that Nate and this unwelcome woman came together. If it weren’t for her brother’s solid form, she would have crumpled to the floor. She pulled away slowly.
“I have to go,” she sputtered. “I really want to hear your news but can it wait for a bit?”
Sean frowned down at her. “It could if my news hadn’t just arrived.” He gestured to the blonde. “Sandra, I’d like you to meet my sister, Phil. I mean Mena.”
Sandra’s face lit up into a smile and she rushed forward. “I’m so glad to finally meet you. Sean tells the greatest stories of your escapades.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Mena hoped her voiced didn’t sound as stiff as she felt. A diamond glinted on Sandra’s left hand. If possible, her mood plummeted even further. Just let me get out of here. Better yet, kill me now. Mena steeled herself for the news that was sure to follow. Nate was engaged. Her brother’s oblivion showed in the grin that stretched from ear to ear. To her shock Sean put his arm around Sandra and drew her close.
“Sandra and I are engaged.”
“You’re engaged?” A cold rush of surprise surged through her.
“I know.” He laughed. “Who would have thunk it?”
“Not me.” Mena stood frozen in place digesting the information. She had it wrong? Joy in a slow wave gathered momentum, making her so giddy she started to collapse. But a strong arm gripped her. She pulled free from Nate’s timely rescue and tripped forward enfolding Sean and Sandra in a group hug. “Welcome to the family.”
“Thank you.” Sandra squeaked, alerting Mena that she squeezed a bit too hard. She released them knowing she probably looked like a foolish girl. Not that she minded. That was exactly how she felt.
Sandra turned to her partner. “Sean, might I have a moment with you out in the hall.”
Sandra led Mena’s confused brother out the door. Nate took her arm again, but his usual aplomb seemed to have deserted him. If she didn’t know him better, she would’ve thought he was nervous. He thrust the flowers at her. “These are for you. I trust they’re still your favorite.”
“Really?” Her voice came out somewhat breathy. With a tentative hand she reached for them awed that he would remember such a tiny detail.
“First let me say, I’ve been a coward but Sandra set me straight.”
“I should have asked you out a long time ago.” He gulped and raked his hand through his hair. “But I’m asking you now. Will you be my Valentine?”
Tears of a different kind blurred her vision. “Really?”
He drew her closer, crushing the flowers, but how could she care? He lowered his mouth to hers. Her heart beat so fast she was sure it would explode out of her chest and land on the floor. But that was okay just as long as held her like this for as long as she lived.