Sutton aimed her camera at Lily’s face. Lily whispered in Deacon’s ear, her long tapered fingers with their rosy pink nails resting on his arm. She knew she shouldn’t click, but she couldn’t miss out on such a compelling shot. Maid-of-Honor Delivering Bad News. Why else had Lily half-run, half-marched down the aisle in her very high heels?
The look on Deacon’s face as he’d watched Lily’s advance said everything. The closer Lily got, the less Deacon’s eyes danced with nervous excitement and the more his brow creased with worry. By the time Lily had finished whispering to him, his eyes were wide with disbelief.
But there was a glance between Deacon and Lily that Sutton hoped she had captured. A moment of electricity in the breath between Lily laying her hand on his arm and then leaning close to whisper in his ear. Sutton hadn’t caught anything close to that kind of tenderness in the hundreds of pre-wedding shots she’d taken of Deacon and Dahlia.
The hundreds of shots that all looked contrived and forced, except when Dahlia was looking in the distance. Those were the most honest pictures. They were the ones that made Sutton wonder whether Dahlia would actually make it down the aisle.
Sutton had buried her doubts about Dahlia saying I do underneath her relief that Dahlia was paying her more for one job than she’d made in months. Of course, giving in to Dahlia’s pleas to come back to Charleston for the bridal and wedding photos had cost Sutton a chance to network with other photographers at the opening of her brother’s show in Soho.
But good friendship required sacrifice, and Dahlia would have done the same for her.
On the other hand, with Dahlia’s failure to appear, Sutton’s wedding job had turned into a typical Dahlia event. Dahlia always pitched her ideas as benefitting everyone else more than herself, yet somehow always came out on top.
“No one is as good as you,” she’d said to Sutton six months before, even though she knew Sutton’s number one goal in moving to New York, aside from escaping Brett—her crazy ex-husband—was to get as far away as possible from the wedding photography industry. Sutton wanted to be a real artist, even if reaching her goals meant riding her brother’s coattails for a while.
“I’ll pay you double what you used to charge, plus travel expenses,” Dahlia had promised, knowing things hadn’t been easy for Sutton since moving.
“Hadley has to be my flower girl. She’s my god daughter,” she’d pleaded. Sutton’s daughter loved her “Aunt Dolly.” Being in her wedding would be the highlight of her five-year-old life. And that little girl deserved some highlights.
Dahlia must have felt Sutton’s resolve slipping, because then she’d pulled out the big guns. “I helped you out when you needed it most.”
And Sutton couldn’t say no, because Dahlia wasn’t exaggerating.
So, here she was. Taking photos of the groom and maid-of-honor. No bride in sight.
Deacon motioned for the music to stop as Lily stood by his side. Sutton heard Deacon say something about Dahlia not coming, but everything after that went blurry. She didn’t hear him say why or what next. If Dahlia had bolted, like Sutton suspected she had, Hadley might be alone.
Hadley hated being alone. Ever since the night her father had lost his temper with her, she clung to Sutton. If the bride had been anyone besides her Aunt Dolly, Hadley wouldn’t have left her mother’s side long enough to walk down any aisle, no matter how pretty the dress. Sutton didn’t like her being alone either, especially when she wasn’t one hundred percent sure her ex wouldn’t show up.
She swallowed hard, pushing back the fear making its way to her chest, threatening to fill her heart with the same darkness pulsing through her brain. Dahlia had promised not to let Hadley out of her sight until she sent her down the aisle. Hopefully she’d kept that promise.
Sutton ran by the candle and magnolia decorated tables ready for dinner guests who likely wouldn’t be eating. She turned down the hall and ran to the bridal suite where she’d taken the pictures of Dahlia in her dress and Camellia helping her with her veil. The same room where she’d held open Hadley’s crinoline and helped her shimmy into her “princess” dress. The final touch—and Hadley’s favorite—was the crown of flowers Sutton had pinned on top of her curls.
Sutton threw open the door, expecting to see her little girl, though the silence hinted at the worst. The door swung wide, hitting the wall with a loud thunk and revealing a room empty except for the chaos left by eight bridesmaids, two flower girls and one bride. A wild array of flowers, hair products, and a lacy wedding gown draped over a chair that served as a testament to the way Dahlia lived her life. Go big and leave the clean-up for someone else.
Hadley had to be close, but the mansion was huge. Sutton cursed the venue and Dahlia all in one breath as she thought about how scared her little girl must be.
She backed into the hallway, then ran around the corner into a large foyer with a grand staircase. She slowed when she saw a man in a tux—one of the groomsmen—on the bottom step. She recognized him. He’d given Hadley a high five and told her great job at the rehearsal after she’d tripped.
A puff of white dress on the other side of him caught her attention, followed by a shock of dark curls as the owner of the flouncy dress leaned forward to retrieve her flower crown. The groomsman said Hadley’s name. The sound rippled through the foyer in a gentle wave.
Sutton stopped to collect herself. At only five years old, Hadley had the uncanny ability to pick up on Sutton’s energy and take on her emotions, good or bad. Hadley had felt enough fear in her lifetime, so Sutton was careful about letting her baby girl see that in her mama. Hadley let out a giggle, the first one in a long time, and Sutton knew she couldn’t ruin the moment. She stepped behind a massive potted palm and listened.
“You would have done a great job sprinkling those rose petals,” the groomsman was saying to her. “Did you try out for the job? You were a natural at the rehearsal.”
“I’m Dahlia’s god daughter, so I didn’t have to try out.” Hadley rested her chin in her hands and stared at her basket, her giggle gone. “She had to choose me.”
“Her god daughter? And her flower girl?” Mr. Tux whistled. “You’re a VIP. Probably the most VIP person here now that the bride’s gone.”
“What’s a VIP?” Hadley asked with the lisp that tugged at Sutton’s heart every time her little girl slipped into it.
“A Very Important Person.” The groomsman emphasized each word and nudged Hadley with his knee. “Except you’re the VMIP – very most important person.”
Hadley sighed. “I guess, but I still don’t get to do the rose petals.”
Sutton stepped from behind the palm, calm enough to embrace her daughter and not let her out of her sight again until they were out of Charleston and back safely to her brother’s place in New York. But the man’s next words made her stop.
“What do you mean you don’t get to do them?” He noticed Sutton and gave a tiny wave followed by a thumb’s up. “You can do them right here,” he continued. “I’ll do the music.” He hummed the first bars of “Canon in D” and picked up Hadley’s flower basket, handing it to her as she stood.
Sutton put her camera to her eye and focused. Hadley still hadn’t noticed her, which meant Sutton could get a natural shot of her. She snapped the photo when Hadley, grinning, put the flower crown back on her head and took the basket. The man’s lips were curved into his own grin as he continued to hum. Sutton took as many pictures as she could before Hadley saw her and stopped her procession.
“There’s the prettiest flower girl I’ve ever seen!” Sutton said as Hadley ran to her with rose petals spilling out of the tipped basket.
“I’ve been looking for you.” Hadley wrapped her arms around her mom
“Who’s your friend?” Sutton asked, picking her up.
“Max,” Hadley answered as he wandered over.
“Hi.” He flicked his hand in a wave, and Sutton let Hadley slide off her waist.
“Thanks for looking out for my girl,” she said without offering her name. She was grateful he’d found Hadley, and he seemed like a nice guy, but she needed to keep a low profile. Brett knew a lot of people, and she couldn’t be sure he wasn’t still in Charleston.
“Dahlia promised to keep an eye on her,” she continued, suddenly remembering there was still someone missing. “But I guess she had other places to be. Or something…”
“Yeah, what happened?” His brow creased with a concern that seemed genuine. She hoped it was. She liked his eyes—deep brown, almost as dark as his hair.
“I don’t know—”
“—I do!” Hadley yelled and let go of Sutton’s hand to step between her and Max. She pointed her dimpled chin up to him and spilled. “She told me she remembered being a flower girl too, then she said she wasn’t ready to get married. I think she still wants to be a flower girl!”
“That sounds about right,” Sutton muttered, and Max let out a short laugh.
“You know her pretty well?”
“Well enough I should have predicted she’d do something like this before I let her convince me to be her photographer.”
Music filled the air as Sutton finished her words. Not the rich sounds of the cellist, whose performance had been cut short, but the pulsing bass of the DJ.
“What’s that, Mama?” Hadley asked, grabbing Sutton’s hand and yanking her in the direction of the music.
“—Maybe Aunt Dolly is back and they’re still having the party!” Hadley kept yanking, and Sutton reluctantly followed, glancing back at Max with a question.
He shrugged and followed them to the ballroom. Heavy bass pulsed through the closed doors followed by rhythmic clapping and stomping. Sutton knew before Max opened the doors, the room would be filled with people line dancing. She also knew exactly what Hadley’s reaction would be.
“Let’s dance, Mama!” Hadley squealed, predictably, and pulled her mom toward the dance floor, but Sutton resisted.
Dahlia had already paid in full. The DJ was playing music, the waiters were serving food, Sutton needed to work. She wasn’t going to take any more charity from Dahlia, even if Dahlia wasn’t there to be part of the pictures.
That is, if Deacon wanted pictures.
“I can’t right now, baby.” She pulled Hadley in the opposite direction. “I’ve got to talk to Deacon.”.
“Please, Mama. I want to dance!” Hadley cried before yanking her hand from Sutton’s. “This is my favorite song, and it’s almost over!” She ran to the dance floor while Sutton stared helplessly after her.
“I can keep an eye on her,” Max offered.
Sutton bit her lip. She didn’t know this guy, but she also didn’t get a creepy vibe from him. Then again, given her history with Brett, she wasn’t entirely sure she could trust her ability to read people’s vibes.
“If you’re comfortable with that.” Max held up his hands to prove his trustworthiness, as if he wanted to show he didn’t have anything up his sleeve. “I promise not to let her go anywhere but the dance floor.”
Sutton glanced from the dance floor to Deacon. Hadley would be within her line of sight no matter where in the room she went. She took a deep breath and pointed to Deacon and Lily.
“I’ll be right over there, and I’ll be back as soon as I find out what’s going on.”
The clapping song faded into “Celebration” and Max said, “looks like…” before singing along with the music “there’s a party going on right here…” in a high falsetto.
She laughed, and the last of her worries about leaving Hadley with Max floated away with the disco beat. Dahlia, for all her anti-establishments aspirations, had chosen the most mainstream wedding playlist ever.
For the first time in years, Sutton actually felt like dancing. She had to force herself not to move to the music as she made her way across the room. The closer she got to Deacon, the closer Lily moved to him, like a mama cat with brand new kittens.
“Hey, Deacon,” Sutton said, meant to sound soothing, but the music forced her to yell. “You okay?”
He nodded along with Lily who answered for him. “He’s going to be fine. This is all for the best.”
Despite her years of friendship with Dahlia, Sutton really didn’t know Deacon. The look on his face told her today wasn’t the day to rectify that situation, even if she’d wanted to. Instead, she turned toward Lily. They weren’t necessarily friends, but at least they’d spent some time together the few times Sutton had hung out at Dahlia’s house.
“So, the dinner and reception are still happening?” Sutton asked, though the answer seemed pretty obvious.
“Aunt Camellia said they’d already paid for everything, so there was no use having all the food and the DJ go to waste.” Lily answered while Deacon shoved his hands in his pockets and stared at the ceiling.
“Does she still want me to do the pictures?” Sutton leaned close to Lily in a vain attempt to keep Deacon from hearing.
Lily took half a step toward Sutton, blocking Deacon from their conversation. “Do it. I’ll send them all to Dahlia, so she can see the world went right ahead and kept on turning without her.”
Sutton raised her eyebrow. “Good plan. Any idea where she is?”
Lily shook her head. “Don’t really care at the moment.”
“Okay. I’ll go do my job then.”
Sutton left Deacon and Lily, heading back to the dance floor with her camera raised. She scanned the floor for Max and Hadley, then seeing Hadley was safe, Sutton began snapping shots of people milling around the room. She turned to the dance floor and took more shots of guests doing the Electric Slide. Dahlia hated The Electric Slide. That had to be Deacon’s doing.
The perfect shot presented itself a few minutes later when she spotted Hadley ducking under Max’s arm before he twirled her around, her flower crown clinging for dear life to the ends of her curls. The pure joy on Hadley’s face reminded Sutton of the first time her parents took her to Disney World and she’d met all the princesses, a million years ago when she still believed princes existed.
She’d long since given up on that dream, but watching Max sparked an ember of hope. Prince Charming didn’t exist, but maybe some good guys still did.
Sutton focused in on Max, getting her first shot of him without Hadley. Two years had passed since she and Hadley had fled to New York and longer than that since she’d seen Hadley so happy. Sutton had vowed when she left Charleston that the only two things she would ever care about again were Hadley and her career. Men and relationships were out.
But if more guys like Max were out there, then someday she might be ready for love again. Someday…