Claire Riley adjusted the front of her strapless dress, giving the girls a good hoist up.
She dabbed on a little more lip gloss and then ran fingers through her glammed up blonde curls. The wedding reception had been going for hours now, and when she looked in the mirror she was a bit more faded than she had been at the ceremony, but still, not bad considering.
Any other wedding and she’d have gone head to head with the other bachelorettes for dancing and cocktails. But since Veronica, the bride and Claire’s BFF, was pregnant, Claire had demurely chosen to sip cranberry sodas all night in solidarity.
Being the maid of honour definitely hadn’t stopped her from taking a thorough inventory of the man candy, though. The groom, Kane Clarke, an ex-marine, had a couple of eligible bachelor friends at the wedding and damn, some of them were fine.
But the only guy who ever really caught her eye these days was the best man, Paul. And Paul was, well, Paul. She wasn’t certain if he was dating anyone at the moment, but he always had such an air of unattainable aloofness, she figured it didn’t matter - because, clearly, he wasn’t interested in her.
Claire was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that she wasn’t his type. Which sucked because he was her type!
And now here she was in the bathroom of the most lovely wedding she’d ever helped plan, surrounded by hot drunk ex-marines, and she’d spent most of the night wishing Paul would notice her.
Ever since the summer, when Kane and Veronica got together, Claire’s crush on Paul had gone from casual to a full on 8th grade mega crush situation.
She could conjure up Paul’s tattoo sleeves at will, a thought which was always guaranteed to get her weak in the knees. She loved the way the sea creatures crawled up and around his arms and onto his back to form a giant kraken. She’d seen him in swimming trunks at the beach a few times. And oh sweet baby Jesus, those military grade abs. They weren’t the kind you get from standing in front of a mirror doing mindless reps, they were the kind of supple muscles you get from being naturally active. Paul had maintained his marine’s physique and mindset and was always running, hiking, going to yoga, rock climbing. All of it.
He was like a walking Under Armour ad.
Claire jumped when someone banged on the bathroom door.
“YOOOOOHOOOOO,” called Lindsay, one of Veronica’s old friends from veterinary school, who had decided Claire was her new best friend. “Come out and dance with me!”
Claire smiled to herself. Lindsay was a hoot. She was a strawberry blonde with big blue eyes and wild, frizzy hair. She’d been downing G&Ts all night and Claire had promised to dance with her when Usher’s Tonight came on.
As the song started up Claire threw open the door and grabbed Lindsay’s outstretched hand, racing her to the dancefloor.
Lindsay gave her a twirl and Claire caught sight of Paul, standing in a corner with a group of guys from his and Kane’s old squad. She could have sworn Paul was grinning at her and had tipped his drink playfully in her direction. Of course, Paul was just being nice, she decided. He was just congratulating her on a job well done. Nothing more. But when she chanced another look, Paul was still staring in her direction and this time she got bold.
Claire took a deep breath and decided what the hell…. She beckoned Paul to the dance floor.
Lindsay must have noticed her beckoning Paul, because she danced away, a knowing little grin playing at the corner of her lips.
To Claire’s utter surprise, Paul definitely noticed the invitation! He nodded and started walking towards her, looking every inch like the charming bad boy from a James Bond movie.
Claire’s breath caught in her throat. Oh God, now what, she panicked. The song was coming to an end and she prayed something easy to dance to would start.
Bust a Move spun up.
Paul was making his way across the floor and she felt flutters in her tummy. Would they touch? Would he come in close? Her mind raced.
Just as he was getting into the fray though, one of the marines grabbed him. It was the super drunk, sad guy who’d been hitting on all the single gals, trying to get someone, anyone, to listen to his sad sack story of divorce and highway robbery via child support payments. Claire racked her brain trying to remember his name from the guest list. Sam. Sam Bickford. That was his name.
Sam wrapped an arm around Paul and started drunk shouting at him.
Disappointed, Claire kept dancing, but it felt super awkward at this point, like she was treading water. Determined, she powered through, grooving while she watched Paul try to disentangle himself.
Their dance still looked promising.... until Sam wrapped Paul in a big bear hug and dragged him back to the group of marines.
Lindsay danced her way back and shouted into Claire’s ear, “Oh my god, that Sam guy is such a loser. Not to mention a total cock block.”
Claire burst out laughing. “He’s pretty clueless,” she shouted back.
Lindsay shook her head. “With my luck, I’ll end up hooking up with him.”
“I promise that is NOT going to happen on my watch,” Claire assured her. Still, Claire made a mental note to make sure she was the only one tucking Lindsay into bed after the wedding. Lindsay, like a couple of the other long distance guests, was staying at the lodge, so it should be easy.
Claire tried not to think of her lost dance with Paul, instead pulling Lindsay towards a group of other single girls so they could keep dancing.
“Whew.” Veronica sat down next to Claire and put her feet up. “We finally get a chance to sit with each other.”
“How are you feeling? Getting tired?” Claire frowned with worry. Her best friend was due in two months and this winter wonderland wedding was spectacular - but still, Veronica needed rest.
“Nope,” Veronica chuckled. “I’m on cloud nine. Well, I am now that I took off those horrible heels….”
Claire smiled at her bestie. Veronica was festooned in a gorgeous white lace mermaid style wedding dress. Veronica's beautiful bump protruded out, goddess style. Her dark hair was in a loose updo, with tiny pearls and diamonds tucked in to hold it all in place. Veronica’s green eyes sparkled and Claire felt her heart swell, filled with gratitude that the wedding had been such a success. She loved Veronica fiercely and seeing her with such a great man, well, it was enough to make her tear up. Again.
“Oh don’t cry just yet!” Veronica teased Claire, squeezing her hand. “Your makeup will run and Paul’s just on his way over.” Veronica gave her a huge, conspiratorial grin and winked, “I could have killed that guy who interrupted your big chance earlier.”
Paul joined them before Claire could respond. He handed them each a glass of water.
Veronica said to Paul, “Thank you. By the way, I’m sorry you have to babysit Sam so much.”
Paul shrugged. “He’s going through a rough patch.”
“Oh we know,” Claire joked. “His ex-wife is taking him to the cleaners and his business partner is trying to buy him out and his dog hates him, too.” She’d already heard Sam’s sob story about three times over the course of the night.
“I think it’s his cat who hates him, actually,” Paul said wryly. “Either way, he’s in a cab headed to his hotel. They’re gonna meet him and make sure he gets to bed safe.”
“That’s nice of you,” Claire said. In typical Riley fashion, she added, “Have you eaten anything yet?”
Paul smiled at her. “How could I not? I’ve been eating all night. You and your sister did an amazing job.”
Claire felt warm and gooey - Paul liked her cooking! “Well, Juliet is an amazing chef. I learned everything about cooking from her. And it’s her catering company. I just helped.” Claire looked in her sister Juliet’s direction. As usual, Juliet was bent over her phone, tapping out a text message. Still, what Juliet lacked in relaxation skills, she made up for in the kitchen; her restaurant and catering were exploding in popularity in Charm City.
“But you’re the baker,” Veronica pointed out. “The cake was stunning, Claire. And sooooo good. I can’t thank you enough.” Veronica hugged Claire. “Oh! And I’ve been telling people about your class all night. I have a bunch of names for you.”
“What class?” Paul asked.
Claire blushed crimson. Her class was a silly lark Juliet had forced on her. Juliet’s foodie empire had just expanded to having a demo kitchen where she brought together local foodies and chefs for classes and demos. She’d roped Claire in for a Macaron Making Night.
Of course, in typical Juliet fashion, she’d also pointed out that since Claire had no qualifications and no reputation in the local food scene to speak of, the class was just a loss leader, a little something to pad out the options for January.
“It’s a Macaron making class, very simple, just to help Juliet,” she mumbled humbly.
“I’d love to attend,” Paul said. He pulled out his phone, “When is it?”
Veronica rushed in to answer, giving Paul the date, time and location, which he immediately googled. In a matter of seconds; he registered. Paul held up his phone in triumph. “It’s been on my bucket list for a while now, to take a few cooking and baking classes.”
Claire tried to decide if the stirring in her tummy was nerves or pure excitement at the idea of spending more time with Paul. A little of both, she decided. “Whew,” she joked. “The pressure is on now! I think we’re up to three registrants.”
Paul shook his head, “It must be way more than that. I got the last spot.”
“Really?” Claire blinked in surprise. “That’s amazing!”
Juliet had made it seem like the class would probably get cancelled due to lack of interest, which had been a relief… and a little annoying. Juliet was always quick to make sure Claire knew she was an amatuer at most things in life. While she, Juliet, was the expert.
“I’m not at all surprised,” Veronica said firmly. “You’re so talented Claire.”
Veronica made a small noise and Claire followed Veronica's gaze to Veronica’s birth mother and foster mother. The two women looked like they were just about to head upstairs to their lodge rooms, purses and shawls in hand.
Veronica quickly said, “You two stay and relax a bit. I’ve gotta go say goodnight to Aggie and Lila.”
Veronica all but shoved Claire and Paul together as she took off.
When Veronica left, Paul said matter of factly. “I think she’s trying to set us up.”
Claire flushed an even darker shade of pink. She was completely unsure of how to respond.
“Oh?” She said, trying her hardest to sound casual. “You think?”
“Not that I’m opposed to it,” Paul continued on, totally nonchalant. “Hey, are you getting hot? Want to go outside for some fresh air? You’re turning beet red.”
Before she could say a word, Claire felt Paul’s firm hand on her upper arm, guiding her towards a pair of French doors and outside. The cold January air hit her bare skin and it felt glorious after being stuffed into the main room of the lodge with all those gyrating bodies. She turned to look at Paul, who was settling down on an old fashioned Adirondack chair.
“Take a seat,” he said, patting the chair besides him. “You’ve been going all night.”
Claire shivered as she sat down, but not because she was cold.
Paul confused her, but in the best possible way, and it made her skin prickle with excitement. Everything about him was a study in opposites. Ex-marine who took baking classes. Macho but gentle. The whole time they’d been planning back and forth by text for the wedding, he’d been a gentleman. But also so smart and funny. He was unlike any man she’d ever dated - and obviously, out of her league.
It had been excruciating torture to be so connected with Paul during wedding planning. Every time she sent a text she mulled and mulled over every single word choice, until her head hurt and the words didn’t even make sense anymore. Now that the big night was here and almost done, she wouldn’t have a reason to talk with him so frequently and that hit her like a stone in her gut.
Claire watched silently as he slid off his suit jacket and then she held her breath when he draped it over her shoulders. Thank God he didn’t insist I put it on, she thought. She’d have been mortified if it didn’t fit.
As a busty, buxom girl, she was used to those indelicate moments when the (limited) men in her life realized she was larger than them; and not just on top. As far as she could tell, she probably had about 30 lbs on Paul at a size 14.
“That should help warm you up,” he said.
“It’s perfect,” she said, snuggling into it. It smelled like Paul - a spicy cologne that made her think of cognac and jasmine - an odd pairing, but somehow perfectly suited to him. She was nervous, but she forced herself to think of some way to keep the conversation going. Claire said, “So what else have you got on that bucket list of yours?”
“Well, I’m taking guitar lessons. Been doing them for about a year. I always wanted to be one of those guys who could just grab a guitar and play all the classics.”
She grinned, thinking of Paul at a campfire, belting out Neil Young. “I could see that,” she said.
“And I want to finally finish restoring my motorbike. It’s hard to get the parts, so it’s been a couple of years in the making.” Paul swiped through his phone then held up a picture of an old fashioned dark green motorcycle with lots of shiny chrome. “It’s a 1940’s British military bike. An Ariel 350, all original,” he said, sounding like a proud father.
Her brothers and father were into bikes, so she knew the dedication it took to restore one.
“Mind if I take a closer look?” Claire said.
When he handed her the phone, Claire zoomed in and around. While yes, her brothers were bike obsessed, she didn’t know the first thing about them. Even still, she knew a sexy bike when she saw one.
When she handed back the phone, Paul said, “I’ll have to take you out on her, when she’s done.”
“I’d love that,” Claire said, imagining herself wrapped around Paul, speeding down a quiet country lane. She shivered again.
“Um, just a little. But I need the fresh air.” Knowing this might be their last conversation for a while, she pushed herself to keep it flowing. “So… anything else on your bucket list?”
Paul nodded, considering. “Couple of things. The usual. I want to get married, have kids. And I’m hoping that one day, I guess after the kids are grown and all that, my wife and I would sail around the world together.”
“I guess that explains your kraken tattoo,” Claire said. She instantly regretted it, convinced she sounded like a total stalker.
Paul caught her eye and grinned playfully. “So you noticed my tattoo, huh?”
Claire got red again. Oh God, she sighed inwardly, he must think I’m obsessed, memorizing his tattoos. She tried to play it cool. “Well it’s….. Large and complicated, it goes all the way to your back. It stands out,” she said, hoping she sounded sane and casual. ‘Cuz she sure didn’t feel casual. In fact, she felt like she was about to die of embarrassment.
“What about you? I never noticed any tattoos on you,” Paul said with a wicked gleam in his eyes that made her get even redder.
This is torture, she decided. He’s torturing me.
And oh, how she liked it.
Claire wrapped his jacket around her shoulders, feeling a little flirtatious, and scared as hell she might be misinterpreting his interest. “I do have a tattoo. It’s pretty small and hidden.”
He cocked his eyebrow, “A secret little treasure? Where?”
“Um,” she struggled to find the words to describe the little spot on her bikini line where she had gotten a tattoo on a wild night during college. Instead she stood up and showed him the hidden spot, “here.”
“No wonder I didn’t see it,” Paul said, perfectly calm, cool and collected. “I guess your bikini was covering it when we were at the lake.”
Claire almost fell back into her seat. Paul had noticed her that day at the lake? In her bikini? She’d thought she’d been the one scoping him out. But apparently he’d looked at her enough to see if she had a tattoo. Her stomach flipped with nerves; she wasn’t sure if this was good or bad. He wasn’t giving any hints about whether or not he liked what he saw.
Which was classic Paul. Always polite, always aloof.
Paul’s eyes glided over her face, “That reminds me. I’ve got one other item on my bucket list I wanna I check off.”
Claire swallowed hard. “What is it?”
“Seeing your tattoo.” He grinned, “All good pirates like finding a secret treasure.”