“I am still me, but I am someone new.”
Hildreth smiled and put his hands on top of her hands. “No. You’re still you. My fierce, fire-blooded, frizzy-headed wench of a Marauder. And I’m glad of it. I would never want you to be anything less than who you are.” He leaned forward and looked into her eyes. “Promise me you’ll never change who you are. Even as we grow and mature, be you. Because I love you. Whether you’re Elsie Vansing or Elsie Mayhew, oh, I love you.”
Before Elsie could think of anything to say to that, everyone started to trickle and pour into the restaurant.
Hildreth’s group of friends.
Friends and relatives.
And they were all talking and laughing and all around ruining the moment.
Hildreth smiled ruefully and released her hands.
“Why does everyone and everything have to interrupt us?” Elsie asked. “Why can’t they leave us alone in this beautiful moment?”
“It’s an ongoing mystery, Els.” He stood and offered her his arm.
She gladly took it, linking her arm with his.
He looked at her – a beautiful woman in silver and white – and his heart swelled with pride and love. “Elsie. My Elsie.”
“Let’s do this.”
Jim-Marie flinched as the crowd seemed to surge around him. He clenched his teeth and resisted the urge to run to Master Shinowa to grab his hand.
Then, he caught sight of Hildreth.
Ah. He’s so strong and amazing.
Hildreth looked down at Elsie and smiled. They disappeared into a tangle of people.
Jim-Marie held his head higher. “I can do this.”
And I can do it on my own.
He fought through his claustrophobia and shaking knees and walked forward. He followed the crowd to the banquet room.
Master Shinowa glanced around, trying to find his young student.
Parker will be panic about all so many people.
He opened his mouth to call out Jim-Marie’s name. Then, he saw him.
Jim-Marie stood still in the motion of the crowd. He stood still, yet he looked like he wanted to bolt.
Master Shinowa pushed his way past men, women, and children to get to him.
Hildreth and Elsie walked past with their arms linked together.
Jim-Marie raised his head. His hands were clenched in fists. His entire body looked stiff and uncomfortable. Yet, he plunged forward with the crowd.
Master Shinowa stopped and smiled.
Kaneshiro stopped next to his brother. “Finally found you.” He scrutinized his expression. “Still feeling ‘greatly self satisfied’?”
Master Shinowa shook his head. “Pride. So many pride. Parker does learn.”
“If he does, it’s because he has a very good teacher.”
Master Shinowa smiled at his brother.
Kaneshiro smiled back. “I daresay he has a great teacher. Come on. Let’s get to the reception. I’m starved.”
Clarice stood on her tiptoes and scanned the crowd for Elsie, but she had no luck. She caught a half-a-second glimpse of Hildreth.
Then, the crowd converged and Hildreth disappeared.
Her phone rang.
She answered it. “Hello?”
Her heart pitter-patted as if she were a teenager again. “John! How’s my excellent smexy man?”
John chuckled. Maybe it was her imagination, but he sounded a little embarrassed. It made her even happier. “I’m doing good. My daughter is officially a married woman. What about your Elsie?”
“Just got married. We’re at the reception now.” Someone accidently bumped into her and kept on going without a single apology. “John, I wish you were here.”
“Same here.” he said softly. “I wish I could crash the party.”
“Oh, you should! No one would mind. I’m sure of it.”
“You shouldn’t tempt me like that.”
She blushed. “If you’re being tempted, you should just give in.”
“I wish I could. But I have a young girl I’m in charge of. I can’t leave her behind and I don’t really know if she’s up for another party. We stayed up pretty late last night.”
“Oh. Too bad. Tell you what. Stay home. Get your sleep, you sweet bundle of marvelous energy.”
He laughed. “That is the most unusual compliment I’ve ever received.”
“But it’s true.”
“Clarice. Can I see you later today? There’s so much I want to talk to you about.”
“What about your charge?”
“I’ll figure something out. Clarice, even if I have to bring her with me, please? Can I see you today?”
She felt like marshmallows melting on a stove, like snow brought into a warm house, like butter left in a sunroom. “Yes. Oh, yes. I’ll call you when I leave the reception. I can’t wait to see you again, John.”
“I can’t wait to see you as well, Clarice.”
“John, could you say it? And don’t be embarrassed about it. Don’t try to make excuses about it. Say it, John, and don’t be afraid. Say it, John. Just tell me.”
“I love you.”
She smiled. “And I love you too.”