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“Jason! Shelby! Hi! It’s so nice to meet you and congratulations to you both!”

“Thank you so much, Danica! And thank you for coming. We are so excited about getting started on the wedding planning. We can’t wait to get going right, honey?”

“Oh, right. Yes, definitely. We really are excited and yes, thank you for coming.”

“My pleasure! So…it’s February 18th. What day are we looking at?” she asked the newly-engaged couple. Danica Evans been working solo as a wedding planner for the last three years after learning the ropes from a family friend for two years before starting her own business, and she knew very well how important timing was to pulling everything together for the big day.

“We were thinking mid-June right, honey?” she asked.

‘She’ was Shelby Stanton, a 25-year old former beauty queen, college graduate, and socialite. As a member of the Stanton family, one of the wealthiest in the low country of Beaufort, South Carolina, it was a given she would have nothing less than a spectacular wedding. A wedding that would be paid in full by her father, Robert Stanton, senior partner at the law firm of Stanton, Charles, and Kenning. Stanton was also a retired Marine Corps colonel who’d been a military lawyer for nearly 30 years as a Judge Advocate before retiring in Beaufort and starting his own firm some 15 years ago.

‘Honey’ was her fiancee of four days, Jason Kelley, a 24-year old Marine Corps officer who flew F-18s at the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort. First Lieutenant Kelley had been out of flight school for just over a year and was assigned to a flying squadron known as VMFA-333 or “Trip Trey” as it was commonly called for it’s three 3s.

They’d met at the Marine Corps ball, an annual event held on bases all across the Marine Corps every November 10th. Just like her mother, Shelby had always planned to marry a Marine officer who would sweep her off her feet and provide her with something at least close to the kind of life she and her older sister, Emma, had known growing up.

As always, there was a new crop of handsome, single officers to choose from, but in the past, they’d just been dance partners or perhaps even dates. The difference was Shelby’s father had recently let her know it was about time she thought about settling down and having children and when the colonel spoke, Shelby listened.

Of all the good-looking, eligible bachelors, Jason had caught her eye very early on. She’d no sooner let her father know whom she’d chosen than the retired colonel, wearing his evening dress uniform, had struck up a conversation with the young lieutenant. Right on cue, Shelby had drifted into their social circle waiting to be introduced. Kelley was caught off guard by her obvious beauty which was a rare for a guy as good looking as he was. But Shelby Stanton was nothing short of gorgeous and she was initially as charming as she was beautiful.

Before the night was over, he’d found himself agreeing to see her again, a date which included spending time with her family, led by the very formidable Colonel Robert Stanton, U.S. Marine Corps, retired. Further dates, or rather—social engagements—followed. Between the colonel’s mix of forceful personality and affable nature, his endless stories of days gone by, the excellent cooking of his still-beautiful wife, Kendra, and Shelby’s willingness to do um…anything to make young Jason happy, he soon found himself under her spell if not that of the entire Stanton clan, less the mysterious Emma whom he had yet to meet.

They dated non-stop for nearly three months during which time Jason and Shelby had been intimate almost every day after a proper third date, of course. And when it came to intimacy, Miss Shelby had proven herself a very talented, very accomplished courtesan, less the fee normally associated with women accorded such a title.

She was also very intelligent and able to hold her own on any topic, making that much more appealing to a young man ready to settle down and start a family as was Jason Kelley. Having once been Miss Low Country, Shelby was also as beautiful as any girl he’d ever known, and he’d known quite a few very attractive women.

In spite of something in his gut that wouldn’t leave him alone, he’d fallen so hard (of maybe been pushed so hard) that just four days ago, he’d proposed to her and now he found himself at the Stanton’s home sitting down to plan his upcoming wedding. They hadn’t set a date yet, but Shelby had essentially done just that for them.

“Sure, June sounds…perfect, Shelby,” he agreed bringing a big smile and a kiss on the cheek from her.

“Maybe the 14th? Seeing that it’s Flag Day and all, I think that would be very appropriate. Don’t you agree?”

It was more a declaration than a question and once again, Kelley found himself swept up in the tidal force that was Shelby Stanton.

“The 14th? Yeah, that seems like a good choice. Sure. Let’s go with that.”

“Perfect! Then it’s settled,” she said mostly for Danica’s casino oyna effect.

The wedding planner looked at her notes then said, “Okay, so that leaves us just under four months to pull this together. Next question is the approximate number of guests.”

For the next two hours, Kelley felt like he was in one of Dante’s circles of hell. He came from a solidly middle-class family and had a younger sister so he knew that a wedding was a big deal to most girls. Therefore he’d pretty much always expected to have one. What he didn’t realize was how the planning could take on a life of its own. Planning that got into so much minutiae, it made planning for a deployment of an F-18 squadron seem trivial.

His mind was swimming in the details of things he’d never once thought about and about which he had no interest whatsoever. Floral arrangements, seating charts, guest lists, what kind of cake to serve, which band to hire, and perhaps most importantly, where to have it.

At some point, Mrs. Stanton set in with them and made sure to let her daughter know their home was large enough and an option she should at least wish to consider it. Shelby ruled it out almost as quickly as it was raised. No, she needed a place that would ‘set the tone for the rest of their lives.’ A chapel of some kind. One that was non-denominational, rustic, quaint, but beautiful. Kelley suddenly had visions of doing lengthy recon runs to every chapel within a 50-mile radius then going back for second, third, and even fourth visits among many things he dreaded even thinking about.

At one point, he politely suggested they take a short break. Shelby reluctantly said she could spare him for possibly ten minutes and he stepped outside onto their very large patio covered by an equally large pergola. It was cold outside and Kelley relished the chill of the air as he breathed in deeply.

He look around at the very-well-cared-for back yard and saw someone inside the modest glass-enclosed greenhouse situated near the fence. He hadn’t been in it before and the idea of stretching his legs appealed to him. He walked across the grass that was dormant for the winter and poked his head inside. He saw the person near the back and said, “Hey there!”

She turned suddenly and he could tell he’d scared her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. It’s just that all the wedding planning was closing in on me and I had to get some fresh air.”

The woman smiled and said, “Oh, okay. You must be Jason. I’m Shelby’s sister, Emma.”

“Oh, okay. Your name has come up quite a few times in past several months. I didn’t realize you were home visiting.”

She smiled and said, “I am here visiting, but this isn’t home. At least not anymore. I have my own place in Port Royal.” Port Royal bordered Beaufort as well as the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, which churned out thousands of new Marines from the eastern half of the US each year while San Diego did the same for the western half of the country.

“Oh, okay. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.” He extended his hand and Emma went to shake it then pulled back.

“Sorry. I’ve got potting soil all over me. At least I hope that’s just potting soil,” she said before laughing nervously.

She was also very attractive, and Kelley could see the resemblance rather clearly, but in that short amount of time, his instincts told him that’s where the resemblance ended. Emma was obviously older, and she gave him the distinct impression she was very different than her younger, very outgoing sister.

“So you’re a pilot?” she asked as she went back to working with the roses she’d been tending.

“Yes,” he told her. “How about you, Emma? What do you do?”

“Me? I…disappoint my father,” she said without looking at him. She put down the tool she was using, turned toward him, then said, “That wasn’t fair. You don’t even know me and I’m dragging you into a lifetime of drama known as the Stanton family. Please forgive me. Let me try that again. I’m a nurse and I work at Beaufort Memorial Hospital.”

“No need to apologize. I’m trying to learn how to steer clear of that…drama, as you called it. Any advice?”

Emma laughed then said, “Good luck.”

“That’s it? No words of wisdom? No…roadmap. No nothing?”

“I tried dodging it most of my life, Jason. I gave up when I went away to college. Oh, and that’s where the disappointment began, just in case you were wondering. Sorry, I’m sure you don’t want to hear my tales of woe.”

“Actually, I do,” he told her. “Anything I can learn to help me avoid the ubiquitous social landmines would be very helpful.”

“Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you,” she told him with a small laugh and another warm smile. “Daddy wanted me to go to law school and I’ve never had the slightest interest in it. I like helping people and although I will admit that attorneys do sometimes help people, it’s just not my cup of tea.”

“That doesn’t seem so bad. Choosing nursing over law. Both are respected slot oyna professions.”

“I like to think so,” she said. “But that’s not all. You see, I’m also supposed to be married by now and producing grandchildren. Oh, and you should understand that means never leaving Beaufort, either.” She smiled again then said, “I suppose I could get away with living as ‘far off’ as Charleston to the north or maybe even Savannah to the south.” She cut her eyes back over at Jason then said, “I hope you know you’ve entered the Stanton’s own black hole and once you marry Shelbo—my childhood name for her—you may never leave.”

“Wow. Just like The Hotel California? You know, where you can check out anytime you like…”

“But you can never leave?” Emma said finishing the song from the ’70s by The Eagles.

“It’s none of my business and this may make me sound like some kind of throwback to the 1960s, but you’re obviously very pretty, Emma. Is there some reason you’re not married?”

“Um…not really. Okay, maybe. I don’t know. I’ve been close a couple of times. I was even engaged once—to a pilot, by the way—but I guess I’m one of those doomed to always be a bridesmaid but never a bride. In fact, I just happen to have the dubious honor of being the last…single…girl standing out of all my high school classmates. All of them have been married—at least once—by now.”

This time she smiled at him in a way that told him she was a very warm, very genuine person. He hadn’t seen any of the pomp and flash that accompanied her sister everywhere she went.

“Well, I’m sorry your fiancee didn’t follow through. You seem like a pretty amazing catch to me.”

Emma didn’t answer for several seconds. Then, without turning toward him, she said, “He was killed doing a routine maintenance flight in 2008. He’d made it through two tours in Iraq without a problem. One of them was during Fallujah when they were flying hundreds of missions a day. Sorties, I believe, is the correct word.”

“I’m very sorry. I feel like a total ass for implying he stood you up. And we often hear ‘there’s no such thing as a routine flight. Again, I’m really sorry for saying that.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “It was eight years ago and you couldn’t have known.”

“It just seems like Shelby would have mentioned it at some point.”

“Well, as much as I love my baby sister, we are two very different people,” Emma said confirming his gut feeling. “I’m the older, quieter, always-well-behaved sister while she’s…Shelby.”

Kelley didn’t want to laugh, but he couldn’t help it. Nothing else need be said. He got it and Emma knew he got it and she laughed, too.

“That was mean, and I had no business saying it. She can be really great sometimes.” Emma paused and realized that sounded just as bad. “I should probably stop talking while I’m just behind. No need to bury myself, right?”

“And I should probably get back inside anyway,” he said.

“Yes, you should. At some point, she’s gonna come looking for…”

“Jason? Jason?! Are you out here?” they heard Shelby calling.

“Oops!” Kelley said. “Is there a back or side exit I can use?”

“Nope. Sorry. You’re gonna have to face the music directly, mister,” she told him.

“You mean firing squad?” he quipped.

“Ah. Fast learner. I like that.”

“It was nice meeting you, Emma,” he told her as he looked over his shoulder for Shelby.

“You, too, Jason. I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other since I’ll be…guess what? One of Shelby’s bridesmaids. So…”

“Jason Kelley! Where in the world are you?”

“That’s me,” he said using his thumb to point toward the direction of the bellowing. “Wish me luck?”

Emma laughed and said, “Good luck. You’re gonna need it.”

He stepped out of the glass building and hollered, “Over here, Shelby!”

“Oh, there you are! Come on! Let’s get back inside. We have a thousand things to cover!”

“Oh, goody,” he said loud enough that Emma heard him but Shelby didn’t.

He heard her laugh and turned around. He put a finger over his lips and said, “Shhh!”

Emma giggled for the first time and that made Kelley laugh. Shelby was almost there and said, “What’s so funny?”

“Funny? Um…nothing,” he said.

“Oh. Well, let’s get back inside, then!’ she said hooking her arm in his. “Time’s a wasting, right?”

Danica’s next question actually registered with Kelley.

“How formal are we talking? Super formal? Formal? Semi-formal?”

Kelley started speaking before Shelby cut him off. “I don’t know. Nothing too formal, right, Shel…”

She put a hand on his forearm and answered for them. “At least formal. Possibly even very formal. Jason will be wearing his evening dress uniform and the other men who aren’t Marines will wear tuxes.”

“Oh, okay. So dress blues then,” she said making a note.

“No. I did not say ‘dress blues’,” Shelby said in a way that sounded very condescending. “I said ‘evening dress’, dear. I thought canlı casino siteleri you grew up here,” she added in a very catty kind of way.

Kelley didn’t even own an evening dress uniform nor was he required to until he made major which was a good 8-10 years down the road if he stayed on active duty. It was a sharp-looking uniform with a black coat, white shirt, and red cummerbund, but in his mind, dress blues were every bit as good and more than good enough for a wedding. Why spend another $1,000 on a uniform he might never wear again? Oh, right. Shelby just told him to. That’s why.

Rather than start an argument he knew would follow, he simply said, “I guess I better see a tailor here pretty soon.”

Kelley wasn’t rich or even well off for that matter. He had managed to put away about $10,000 in the two and a half-years he’d been on active duty. The main reason was he’d been in Navy ROTC in college and gotten a full scholarship which allowed him to graduate debt free in exchange for a five-year commitment. Not a bad trade considering he was getting paid rather well to fly the jet of his dreams. He wasn’t broke or living paycheck to paycheck, but a thousand bucks was a lot of money for a uniform he might only wear one time.

The rest of the day was a haze. After Kelley left he went back to his apartment and changed into some PT (physical training) gear and got ready for a five-mile run to help him do a little stress busting. Who knew getting married could be so much…fun?

The following Sunday morning he drove out to the Stanton’s to return the colonel’s golf clubs. Kelley didn’t own a set and Shelby’s father had insisted he borrow an old set of his and return them at his convenience. Jason and three of his friends from the squadron had played 18 rounds on Saturday and he wanted to get the clubs back as soon as possible.

Evidently, they’d gone to the Air Station to attend church at the little base chapel so Kelley carried the clubs around back where he knew they’d be safe. As he went to set them down he heard a familiar-sounding voice call his name.

He whirled around and saw her standing behind him. “Emma? Hi, there. This time you startled me.”

She laughed and said, “Turnabout is fair play, or so they say. I’d ask what brings you here but the golf clubs are the answer. The better question is how you’re avoiding going to church with the Stanton clan.”

“Um…the same way you are?” he guessed.

Emma laughed politely again then said, “I hope not. Not if you want to remain in good standing with the colonel. You see, this is yet one more area where I have seriously disappointed my father.”

“I had no idea he was a religious man,” Kelley said.

“He’s not. It’s all about appearances. You see, he’s a conservative Republican and one doesn’t fit in well if one professes to be an atheist.”

Kelley was really confused and shook his head. “So your father is an atheist?”

“No, not really. I’d say he’s more of a ‘deist’ from what I’ve heard him say over the years. You know, someone who believes there’s a Grand Designer who wound things up but from then on doesn’t get involved.”

“I see. And you? Are you a deist, as well?”

“No, I’m the heathen in the family, I’m afraid. I have no issue with religion, per se. I just see no evidence for the existence of any god. Technically, that makes me an atheist but in the ‘weak’ sense as I don’t claim to know there is no God, only that the proposition one exists hasn’t been adequately demonstrated. Or in my humble opinion, it hasn’t been demonstrated at all. I tend think all religions are man-made.”

Kelley laughed. “I had many similar discussions in college and based on your definition, I guess I’m also an atheist although I generally say I’m an agnostic because I don’t believe anyone knows one way or the other. Besides, the word atheist conjures up images of angry, wild-eyed crazies frothing at the mouth over any mention of God in a lot of people’s mind.”

Emma laughed yet again. “Don’t mention that to Shelby or especially my father. That’s exactly what they think being an atheist means. Someone who spends all their time being angry at God—the God they don’t believe exists—and yet are somehow angry with and fighting against him. To me, if he exists, he knows exactly what it would take to convince me he exists, and that would be that. Were that to one day happen, I’d gladly change my mind. Until then, I’m happy being an unbeliever. My father however, is not quite so happy with his older daughter, who, unlike Shelby, refuses to have anything to do with God, church, or religion.”

“So…do you two get along at all?” he asked rather tentatively knowing this was also none of his business. “If not, do you and your mom get along? And um, while I’m really stepping out of bounds, how about you and Shelby? She’s mentioned you once or twice in passing, but that’s about it.”

“I don’t mind you asking. After all, you’re going to a part of the clan in a few months, so you should know what you’re getting into, right?” Emma had a beautiful and disarming kind of smile. It was every bit as pretty as Shelby’s, but Emma’s seemed genuine, something he often felt was missing from his fiancee’s.

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