“Well, I think that's it for the park shots.” She consulted the binder and the notebook that she was carrying. “Onto the wedding chapel, do you know where that is?”
“Yep, I sure do.”
I made my way to Katie. I grasped her small hand in mine and led her across the green grass of the meadow to the little white chapel hidden behind some evergreen trees. Her hand was warm and soft in mine. They were stained a little bit at the tips of the fingers. I was about to rub my thumb over hers when a gasp escaped her lips.
“Oh, it's so romantic.” Her eyes lit up and she dropped my hand like a hot potato.
Her jean-clad legs carried her through the front door. They hugged her perfect curves as if they were painted on. My hand ran through my hair before I followed her. The little chapel had large stained-glass windows with designs of flowers and animals that let the light streak across the floor. White folding chairs had been placed in rows leading up to the archway filled with balloons. I leaned against the wall as she took the area in.
“I don't get it. Where is Annie going to get ready before the wedding?”
“At the pavilion. She and her girls are going to get dressed, and, I guess, take pre-wedding photos. Then, a carriage will take them up to the chapel.”
“How romantic.” She pulled up her very large camera from around her and took some pictures. “Lightning in here is odd.” She scrunched up her nose. “I’m not exactly sure, but I think I'll have to get you to set up some lights in the corners for the shots of the ceremony.”
I grunted in response. I was mesmerized by the concentration on her face.
“I want you to go to the front and stand there like you are getting married yourself.”
She was looking through the viewfinder in her camera and didn't see me smirk at her. My boot heels clicked along the wooden floor as I made my way up to the archway of ivory and white balloons. I thought about if I’d ever had the desire to get married. I closed my eyes for a moment. There stood Katie in my dreams with a white dress. Her long curly hair pulled up into some sort of fancy updo. She walked down the aisle on the arm of her daddy, carrying a large bouquet of whitish flowers. Wow, where did that come from? I hadn’t seen her in several years, and only spent the last couple of hours with her. I mentally shook myself and opened my eyes. Katie was busy snapping shots of the room from the middle of the aisle, over in the corner, and another where the couple would be standing. She was so engrossed with her photography that she seemed not even to know that I exist. It allowed me to check her out freely. Her golden hair was pulled back into a bouncy ponytail. A white blouse with blue flowers gapped when she crouched down. She grew into a beautiful woman. When did that happen?
Katie glanced around the inside of the building until her gaze settled on a platform raised in the air. There was a rickety old ladder that led up to the platform.
“I need to get up there. I think I can get some absolutely fabulous pictures from there.” She waved her hand at it before settling her camera against her chest.
“I'm not sure that is a safe idea.” I scratched my head.
I studied the platform. It probably hadn’t been used in years. Sunlight showed through the gaps in the boards where they had rotted away. Katie was already on her way up the ladder. She climbed up hand over hand, grasping each wooden rung of the ladder. I rushed to her side from across the room just as she put her foot on the next stop. A loud crack sounded throughout the room. She let out a cry as she fell back toward the floor. My arms reached out and caught her. She felt warm and soft in my arms as I held her close to my body. My heart thundered in my chest. Her yellow locks fell across my shoulder. Her big blue eyes widened as she searched my face. My heart pounded as my chest constricted. My mind blanked. Her lips parted with a little gasp. I leaned in close. My lips closed the distance to her lips, as the door swung open.
“What are two doing?” Annie stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips.
Annie’s skirt swung against her legs. She lifted an eyebrow as a smile fought for purchase on her face. She broke the spell over Katie and me. I froze for a minute before I set her feet back on the floor.
“We’re going over the chapel, just like you wanted.” My voice sounded odd to my ears as my throat was thick.
“Sure, you were,” Annie smirked. “Looked like more than that.”
Katie backed into the shadows where she straightened her blouse. She continued to stare at her feet as a bright flush colored her cheeks. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear before pulling her shoulders back. Boy, did she look beautiful. Annie threw looks between the two of us.
“So, nothing at all is going on.”
“That's right,” Katie said. “I was just taking pictures to get ready for your wedding.” She fiddled with the strap of her camera. She seemed to shrink into herself.
“Well, it's almost time for the rehearsal dinner. I need to get ready.” Annie spun on her heel and strode out the door.
“I didn’t...” I ran my fingers through my hair.
Katie interrupted me. “Never mind, it's all right.” She hurried out the door after Annie.
That was a close one. My lips were inches away from his. The high schooler inside of me was about to scream with joy; while, the grown woman part of me was shaking in her shoes. Breath, Katie. Just like your counselor said. I murmured to myself as I made my way to my truck. My anxiety was skyrocketing. It felt like a basketball was thumping around in my chest. What was I thinking? Almost kissing Levi. He was known to be a ladies’ man. My brother, Kaleb, told me he had a new girl every weekend. That would be the last thing I needed would be to fall for him. I had to protect my heart better.
I reached my truck and looked at the itinerary for the wedding as I sat in the front seat. The wedding walk through and rehearsal dinner didn't start for another two hours. That's just enough time to drive home to see my mom.
It had been a long five years since I drove up the long winding driveway to my family's ranch. The ranch horses were in the field to my left; they frolicked around after a long day of work. A white Appaloosa with large black spots led the herd around the field before rearing. I stopped my car to take a few shots of him. He was magnificent. As I continued up the drive, my car bumped through the last pothole before pulling up to the wraparound porch at our family's home. I grabbed my cameras, laptop, and duffle bag and climbed up the steps.
Mama was in the kitchen. Pots and pans clanked together in the sink. A pot of chili bubbled on the stove.
“That smells delicious.” I grabbed a spoon from the dish rack by the sink and swiped some chili. The spicy chili and garlic flavor burst over my tongue. I groaned. I missed Texas chili.
“Katie!” Mama set down her knife and turned it to me. “I didn't even hear you pull in.” She crossed the kitchen to wrap me in a large hug. “It’s been too long since you've been home.”
“I know, Mama.” The guilt inside my chest bubbled just like the chili in the pot on the stove.
She held me back at arm's length inspected me from head to toe. “You've changed a lot since from that Gothic teenager I sent to college.” She smiled and her eyes were shining with unshed tears. She pulled me back into her embrace. “Oh how, I’ve missed you.”
We stayed like that for a few minutes. Tears prickled in the corners of my eyes. I missed my Mama, too. Being home was comfortable. The smell of chili and cornbread filled the kitchen and my heart. I loved my parents and I could never tell them that I needed to go away for myself. I needed to prove to myself I could be successful on my own. I had to free myself from the anxiety that crippled me most of my life. The only way to do that was to throw myself into a life that was different from the ranch and Sunnydale.
Mama went back to cutting up cornbread. “Tell me, how is Denver treating you?”
“It's good." I shrugged. "I’ve several pieces in galleries around Colorado, but you know that. Did you get the email with the pictures I sent you?”
“I did. Your daddy and I are very proud of you.” She beamed at me from the counter. “And that is why I’m not surprised that Annie asked you to take pictures of her wedding.”
The smile on my face drooped at the mention of what I had to do this evening. She noticed and patted my hand.
“You'll do well. I'm sure of it. We've been bragging to all of our friends about our famous daughter, the photographer.”
A blush crept up my neck. Unshed tears escaped my eyes and rolled down my cheeks.
“Thank you, Mama,” I hugged her again.
“You should probably go see your daddy before you go back to town. He's in the barn with Kaleb feeding the horses.”
I set my things down in my room, kissed her on the cheek as I went back through the kitchen, and snagged a hunk of cornbread on my way to the barn.
The barn door swung open with a creak. Some things never changed. Daddy was sitting at his desk in the office, pounding away on his keyboard. I made my way down the barn aisle. A soft white nose nudged me as I walked past her stall.
Her whiskers tickled the palm of my hand as I fed her the rest of the piece of cornbread. She lipped my hand looking for more and nickered a throaty sound. Her big brown eyes pierced my soul.
“Don’t be greedy. I’ll bring you some carrots tomorrow morning.” I whispered into her ear.
I proceeded down to his office and knocked on the door frame. Daddy was a big man with a full head of grey hair that was bleached white by the sun. His skin showed the evidence that he’d worked outside every day of his life. Seeing my family for the first time in years, drug up emotions I hadn’t felt in a long time. Again, tears swam in my eyes when he looked up. A giant smile broke across his face and he hurried around his desk.
“Baby! My world traveler is home.” He wrapped me into a bear hug that lifted my feet off the hard-packed clay.
“Daddy, I’ve missed you so much.” I buried my face in his red flannel shirt. He smelled of fresh-cut hay and horses. After a minute, he set me down.
“Let me see you.” He stepped back and looked me up and down. “My little girl has all grown up.” His voice got rougher as he patted the top of my head. His eyes were bright with tears.
“Daddy, don’t do that I am going to cry.” I wiped at a lone tear rolling down my cheek.
"What’s with all the crying?” A deep male voice sounded behind me.
“Kaleb!” I launched myself at my oldest brother. He was as tall and broad as my daddy but his hair was blonde and curly like mine. It stuck out at odd angles underneath his cowboy hat. His dark blue eyes twinkled as he swung me around.
“The little brat has finally decided to come home.” He set me down and ruffled the top of my head.
“I’m not a brat.” I playfully punched him on the arm.
“Ouch.” He rubbed the bicep I hit with a fake frown on his face. “I’m telling Mom.” I rolled my eyes at him and he winked back at me.
“Your momma said that Annie talked you into being the wedding photographer.” Daddy said.
“Yah,” I looked at the toe of my sandal and scuffed it in the dirt. When I looked up, both men were looking at me. They had their arms crossed and were leaning against the wall, exact mirror images of each other. My cheeks flushed and my heart raced. “I don’t do people.” I threw my hands up in the air. “My photography is all landscapes and nature. What if I blow it?”
“Baby, you’re going to do great. You plan everything out. It’s just your anxiety kicking in.” Daddy smiled at me softly.
“Levi said something like that earlier today.” I pushed my hair out of my face.
“He’s right.” Daddy said. “I’d better go get ready for this shindig as I’m the one marrying those two love birds.” He squeezed my shoulder as he walked past. “I’m happy you’re home, Baby.”
An awkward silence filled the barn until the door swung shut, leaving me and Kaleb sharing the same space. He regarded me with a weird expression on his face. I glanced around the small office and turned to leave
“Wait a minute.” Kaleb broke in. “When did you see Levi?”
“Annie assigned him as my assistant.”
Kaleb leveled a glare that caused me to blush under his scrutiny. He leaned toward me. “Stay away from him, Katie.” He whispered in my ear.
“Why? He’s your best friend.” I whispered back. How dare he tell me who I am going to hang out with! Heat rose up my neck and ears. What was he talking about?
“And I know him better than most. He’s not the type to have a steady girlfriend. I don’t want to kill my best friend when he breaks your heart.” He growled before storming away.