Avoiding the Bouquet

The bouquet of white hydrangeas launched from the bride’s hands and soared into the air, ricocheting off the chandelier. As it plummeted toward Anna, she recoiled, shuddering. Two younger women in skimpy dresses dove in front of her with apparent disregard for maintaining any mystery about their lack of undergarments.

Anna pivoted, abandoning the inevitable tug-of-war, grabbed a glass of champagne and tossed back the bubbles. As she threaded the crowd, she spied another flute of cheer on a service table. She snatched it up and shoved the door open, stumbling into the hall. How many glasses had she consumed? Apparently not enough.

A quiet summer night beckoned her from the other side of the French doors. Her heart pounded to the rhythm of the band’s cover of Brick House. Did every wedding band include that song in its set list? She leaned against the door frame, gazing through the window. The soles of her feet ached. Moonbeams danced across the lawn, leading to the brooding ocean. The music grew louder. She glanced over her shoulder.

A couple danced out of the ballroom, gazing into one another’s eyes. At this point in the night, no one would notice if she disappeared for a while.

Anna dropped her hand onto the door handle and slid it open. She slipped through the narrow space, pulling the door closed behind her. She closed her eyes as she rolled her shoulders, releasing the tension. A warm breeze blew against her face, and she inhaled deeply. The salty air brought a peace she could only find by the sea. She lifted the glass to her lips.

“Hi there.” A deep voice said behind her. “Must be my lucky night.”

Anna’s heart skittered as her throat tightened. She coughed, spewing the champagne.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Her throat burned, and she rubbed her neck as she turned to face the man.

He reclined against the stuccoed wall with one foot crossed over the other and a hand in his pants’ pocket. His bow tie hung loosely around his neck. With the trimmed beard that accentuated his strong jawline and a coy smile, he could have been posing for a men’s clothing ad.

Anna swallowed.

He pushed off the wall and extended his hand as he stepped out of the shadows. “I’m Baker.” He couldn’t be more than thirty. Way too young for her, but . . .

Anna felt the corners of her lips lift. Perhaps, for just one night she could pretend she was young and free, and not a thirty-six-year-old divorced mother of two. Men did it all the time. Her ex-husband was ten years older than her. She’d escaped the bouquet, might as well have a little fun. She jutted out her hand, clasping his. “I’m Anna.” Energy fluttered from her fingertips up her arms.

“I know why I’m out here,” Baker arched a brow, “but I can’t imagine how your date allowed a gorgeous woman like you out of his sight.”

Warmth spread over her cheeks. “Not a big fan of the bouquet spectacle. How ’bout you?” She tilted the glass to her mouth, emptying it.

“Can’t say I mind it.”

“Ha, ha.”

He grinned. “I was at the wedding reception in the other ballroom. But my date, who I suspected was out of my league, apparently brought me to make her ex-boyfriend jealous, and it worked. When I left, they were dancing so close together, a ray of light couldn’t get through.”

“Ouch. Benefits of coming stag, I guess.”

“These are her friends, so it seemed like a good time to make a graceful exit and see what else the Amelia Island beaches have to offer.” He glided to the edge of the stones where he turned, holding out his hand. “Don’t you think it would be a waste—to let this beautiful night— under a star-filled sky—on a practically abandoned beach—go by without enjoying it?”

“Those are pretty words.”

“But are they working?” Baker beckoned her with his fingers.

“Hmm. I’m thinking about it, but we just met.” She placed the glass on a table as she crossed the patio.

His smile grew wider, creasing the corners of his eyes. “Isn’t that what makes this interesting?”

“I’m a little old for a wild night.” She stopped just out of his reach, dropping a hand on her hip.

Baker wrinkled his brow as his eyes made a quick survey of her body. “I doubt that.” He leaned forward, catching her hand and pulling her closer. “But I’m not that kind of guy.”

Her heart pounded. “I-I didn’t—”

Baker placed a finger over her lips and peered into her eyes, holding her gaze.

Anna’s breath caught, and her galloping heart skidded to a stop.

He leaned closer. “I was merely suggesting an innocent walk on the beach.” He released her hand and stepped backward, studying her face with a satisfied smirk.

She narrowed her eyes and squared her shoulders. It may have been a long time, but she used to be good at this game, and it’d been fun. “Of course. That’s what I thought.”

Anna slipped her feet out of her high-heeled sandals and onto the lawn. The dew covered grass chilled her hot skin. She brushed her fingers over his arm as she sashayed by him. “Are you coming?” These days, her life may be devoid of love, but this encounter wasn’t any different than the romance novels she edited. She could do this, and she needed to. How long had it been since a man flirted with her?

Baker jogged up beside her. “Anna, we don’t have to speed walk. We have all night.” He wove his fingers with hers, tempering her pace.

Fantastic. She must have looked super sexy doing her mom walk. Further proof she should leave frolicking to fictional characters. She peeked at Baker out of the corner of her eye. What could he possibly see in her? What difference did it make? It wasn’t a lifetime commitment. It was a walk, and if only for one night, she didn’t have to be someone’s mom or someone’s ex-wife.

A gust ruffled the edge of her skirt, and energy coursed through her. On this beach with this man, she could just be Anna.

She dropped his hand, skipping backward. “Race you to the ocean.”