Zayne gave Hope’s hand a small squeeze. “Ready?” He asked in a whisper.
She smiled gently. “Born ready.” Hope assured him as they stepped through the double doors together.
The small ceremony hall was already full of familiar faces (and a few unfamiliar ones on Ben’s side). Zayne hesitated for a moment, trying to decide who he’d introduce Hope to first. Ideally he would have chosen his aunt, but he knew Jocelyne was off in the dressing room helping Charlie get ready. He’d have to find her during the reception.
At last, his eyes fell on his grandparents, who were busy laughing together up in the front. Perfect. Zayne made a beeline for the trio, Hope smiling along at his side as they drew closer. “Your grandparents?” She asked in a whisper.
He nodded as Tobi, Mark, and Colette each rose to their feet at the couple’s approach.
“Zayne!” Mark waved eagerly at the sight of his grandson.
“Hey, grandpa.” Zayne replied in English, beaming. “Hope, this my grandpa, Mark.” He nodded toward the gray-haired man. “And this is my Opa, Tobi and my Oma, Colette.”
“Oh my dear, it’s so wonderful to finally meet you!” His grandmother cried excitedly in her heavy French accent as she pulled Hope into a hug.
“You too.” She replied, smiling as she pulled away from her. Her eyes turned toward Tobi, who stepped forward with a smile on his face. Hope hesitated for the briefest moment before speaking. “Hallo! Freut mich sie endlich kennenzulernen.” She said each so word slowly and deliberately, but with such confidence too. Zayne couldn’t help but smile.
“Freut mich auch.” Tobi smiled gently at her greeting, and seemed to be taking great care to speak just as slowly and clearly as she was. “Schön, dass du kommen konntest.”
“Um…” A bright burst of laughter filled the air. “Sorry.” Hope shrugged slightly, switching back to her native tongue. “I’m afraid we’ve reached the limits of my German.” She confessed.
“Don’t apologize, that was great!” Tobi said seriously. “And I said I’m glad you could come, by the way.” He added with a smile.
“Thank you.” Hope returned his smile. “And thanks for the translation too…. Maybe it’s time I start looking for a better teacher.” She teased, giving Zayne a small wink as she spoke.
“Hey, German can be pretty tough, so don’t go firing my grandson just yet.” Mark smiled playfully. “But if you’re serious about getting better… Children’s books.” He said seriously. “Best teacher out there.”
The others all eyed him curiously. “Seriously, grandpa?” Zayne asked.
He nodded. “I was still working on getting a grasp of the language back when your mother was born, and let me tell you, those picture books do wonders for learning new words… After I tucked her in, I used to read myself a bedtime story.”
“Mama?” Clara’s breath formed soft little clouds of condensation as she called out into the cold winter air. “There you are! I was wondering where you were… What are you doing out here? It’s freezing!”
Mari shrugged, her eyes still looking up at the night sky. “Just having a chat with your Papa.”
Clara’s face softened instantly at her mother’s words.
“I know it’s probably silly.” Mari continued. “But seeing Charlie walking down the aisle in my old dress…”
“I get it, Mama.” Clara felt a slight stinging in the corner of her eyes. “It’s okay.”
She followed Mari as she headed toward one of the nearby benches and took a seat beside her, no longer quite as bothered by the cold as she was before.
“Your Papa was such a good man. He was the love of my life…” Mari continued softly. “And no matter what kind of shit life threw at us, you know what? We had each other. That was what mattered, more than anything else.”
Clara said nothing. Why is she telling me this? She wondered.
“Honey, I’ve been wondering… How is everything?” Mari finally spoke again, breaking the silence. “Between you and Florian, I mean.”
She shrugged somewhat uncomfortably, surprised by the sudden change in topic. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You do.” Her mother smiled. “We’ve talked about this before, remember?”
“You mean all that ‘empty nest’ crap?” Clara laughed, hoping she sounded casual. “It’s fine now, Mama. I promise.”
Mari did not look entirely convinced.
“Look, I talked to Jocelyne about it already. And Florian and I have talked about it a few times since then… We’re getting through it, Mama. We’re doing okay.”
The old woman shook her head slowly. “Honey, you should be better than just ‘okay’… You know, this could be a really exciting time for the two of you, if you let it.”
Clara could help but laugh. “Exciting?”
Mari nodded. “Believe me, I know how painful it is to see your little ones leave you. I think you were too young to really remember it… but when your Bruder Stefan left us all those years ago, I was a total mess. It was embarrassing how childish I was about it.” She shook her head. “But despite everything, I was still so proud of him when he went off on his own. And I was proud of you. And Tobi and his children too. But every time one of you left, the house just started feeling so empty. Even with Tobi under the same roof, it felt different. He was living his own life. It may as well have been your Papa and I all alone in that house. And I felt so lost.”
The younger woman nodded. She knew the pain of an empty house all too well.
“But your Papa helped me realize it was a blessing in disguise.” Mari said seriously. “We spent almost our entire lives together raising you and your Bruders, and we loved every minute of it. But being on our own opened up new opportunities for us. It was a chance to rediscover each other. Fall in love again… This could be your chance too, honey. This could be a wonderful thing. It really could.”
Clara remained silent for a few moments, and considered her mother’s words carefully. She’d never quite thought of it that way before… She still loved her husband. They still spent time together. But there was something missing.
She’d been so focused on missing her children, and trying to find some way to overcome that feeling… But she and Florian were still coming up empty, no matter how hard they tried. Jocelyne’s advice had been to talk to her husband about her feelings, and that’s exactly what she’d done. But maybe they weren’t having the right conversation…
“I still remember when you and Florian were kids.” Mari continued almost wistfully. “You had such big dreams of traveling the world together, and having all these adventures…” She looked at her daughter almost expectantly.
“We did.” Clara finally broke her silence. She knew exactly what her mother was getting at. “There was so much we used to dream about back then… But it’s too late now, Mama.” She shook her head.
“It’s never too late.” Mari insisted. “ I love you, sweetie. And I know Florian does too. I just want the two of you to be happy. And hey, you’ll never know unless you try, right?” She added with a smile.
“I don’t know…” Clara bit her lip. “Maybe.”
“Talk to Florian about it, sweetie. Really talk to him. I don’t think you’ll regret it.”
I guess it couldn’t hurt to try, could it? “Thanks, Mama.”
“Did you see that?” Tobi smiled as he took another sip of his drink. “I wonder what that was all about… I don’t think I’ve seen Mama smile like that in months.”
His brother nodded in agreement. “Me neither… And Clara too.” Stefan smiled. “Well, whatever it was, it’s nice, isn’t it? I guess weddings tend to bring out the best in us, don’t they?”
“Sometimes… And sometimes the worst.” Tobi replied darkly.
For a moment, his mind traveled back to the disastrous scene at Lucas and Hazel’s wedding all those years ago. It brought back an odd flurry of unpleasant emotions. Shame and regret for how terribly he’d once hurt his daughter. Anger and sorrow that his oldest son’s life had been cut so cruelly short. He did his best to shake the feelings away.
Stefan seemed to notice his twin’s unease, and quickly changed the subject. “Charlie sure looked beautiful, didn’t she?” He asked softly. “I can’t believe she’s all grown up. It seems like only yesterday she was still in diapers… I still remember when Madalyn and I used to help Jocelyne babysit the girls… I know it was hell for you and Colette dealing with two newborns at once… But my God… Three was insane!” He laughed.
“Oh God, I bet! Y’know, you’re really lucky to have those kinds of memories.” Tobi replied. “Lettie and I missed so much when the girls were little…”
To his surprise, Stefan chuckled softly. “Are you kidding? You’re the lucky one… I’m the one who missed so much.” He shook his head. “I know I’ve been harping on it a lot lately… But seriously, I just wish there was some way to go back and get a do-over on the past forty years.” He sighed. “I would have called more. Visited more. Maybe even come back home sooner…”
Tobi shook his head. “I wouldn’t want you to do anything differently.” He said seriously. “You were just busy. We both were. But you had an amazing career, started a beautiful family… Leaving Windenburg was the best thing that ever happened to you, Stefan. And you came home when you were meant to come home.” He assured him.
“Thanks.” Stefan smiled gently. “I know you’re right. I just missed everyone so much… Especially you, Tobi.”
“Me too.” He returned his brother’s smile. “I know I don’t tell you enough… but I love you, Stefan. And I’m really glad you’re here.”
“I love you too.” Stefan clapped his brother on the shoulder for a moment. “And I know there’s nothing we can do to change the past… I’m just happy I made it back in time for us to be a couple of grumpy old men together.”
She nearly jumped at the sound of Mark calling out to her. She turned around and her eyes finally fell on him, standing at the far end of the room beneath the small wedding arch.
“Mark? What’s all this about?” Jocelyne laughed as she drew closer.
A few minutes ago, Mark had somewhat cryptically asked her to meet him in the room where they’d had the ceremony a few hours before. But why?
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said.” He replied, smiling warmly at her. “About us. And the future. And everything we missed out on.”
Jocelyne eyed him a bit curiously. She’d taken her aunt’s advice, and opened up to Mark a couple of weeks ago about her worries. It was a somewhat uncomfortable conversation, but quite freeing too. It felt good to be honest with him.
She’d shed a few tears, and he’d held her and promised that everything would be okay… And though it hadn’t quite alleviated all of her fears, it had certainly helped her feel better. What more could he want to talk about?
“You’re right that we won’t have as much time together as we’d like.” Mark continued. “I hate it, but it’s true. And the closer we got to Charlie’s wedding, the more I realized that if there’s one thing I regret the most, it’s never making you my wife.”
“Mark…” Jocelyne already felt as though she were going to cry. “It’s okay. You don’t –”
“I know why we agreed not to.” He said seriously. “And I still think that was the right decision… But Jocelyne, if I died tomorrow, I don’t think I could stand knowing that I never pledged my life to you.”
She watched breathlessly as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a beautiful ring with a large blue stone — her favorite color.
“I’d get down on one knee if I thought I’d be able to get up again.” He laughed heartily for a few moments. “Jocelyne, I have loved you since the moment I met you.” Mark took her hand in his, sliding the ring onto her finger as he spoke. “And I’ve made so many mistakes since then. Too many to count. I know that. But loving you is the one thing that never changed… and never will.” He smiled.
Jocelyne blinked back her tears. “I don’t know what to say.” Her voice was a whisper. “Except that I love you so much. You’re everything to me… And I don’t need any silly piece of paper telling me I’m your wife. As far as I’m concerned, I already am… But I won’t say no to the ring and the vows.” She laughed softly through her tears. “This is perfect, Mark. You’re perfect.”
“Well, I’m not sure if I’d call these ‘vows’.” Mark joined in her laughter. “I didn’t really prepare anything special like Charlie and Ben did… But no matter what happens, I just want you to know that my heart belongs to you. And it always will.”
“Til death do us part?” Jocelyne teased.
“No.” Mark shook his head. “Much longer than that.”
“Oh, that’s sweet.” Hope smiled as she and Zayne scurried past the doorway to give Mark and Jocelyne some privacy.
He rolled his eyes, but kept his smile. “Personally I think it’s a little nauseating… But I guess it’s kinda nice too.” He shrugged as they continued down the small hallway.
“Guess we headed the wrong way to find the bride and groom though…” Hope muttered as her eyes scanned the empty corridor.
“Maybe they’re back at the reception.” Zayne suggested, taking her by the hand. “Let’s go upstairs and check.”
Charlie and Ben had been so busy throughout the reception that he and Hope still hadn’t had a chance to say hello. Hope and Charlie had already met last week at the apartment, but he wanted her to meet his new brother-in-law too.
As though on cue, one of the side doors beside the stairs creaked open. The sound of barely-stifled giggling suddenly filled the air.
“Shhhh! Shhhh!” Charlie smacked her husband on the arm as they emerged. She reached down, hastily adjusting the long lace skirt of her dress as she continued fighting to suppress her laughter. “Someone will hear!”
Zayne couldn’t help but notice that her veil was missing and her hair was no longer in an elegant bun… And Ben’s suit jacket was nowhere to be found. It was no secret what they’d been up to. His lips curled into a smirk at the sight of them.
Beside him, Hope slapped her hand over her mouth, hoping to suppress her own laughter. But it was too late.
“Oh!” Charlie’s eyes widened as her gaze fell upon her cousin and his girlfriend. “Zayne, Hope… Uh… hi! I hope you’re enjoying yourselves.” She managed a smile.
“This is such a beautiful wedding.” Hope nodded. “We’re definitely having a good time.”
Zayne chuckled. “Though clearly not as much as you are…” He watched as Charlie’s cheeks reddened. “No, but seriously… We are.” He assured her seriously, still speaking English for Hope’s benefit. “This is great. And congratulations… To both of you.”
“Thanks.” Ben smiled. “We’re so glad you could come. Both of you.” His eyes lingered on Hope for a moment as he spoke.
“Us too!” Zayne gestured toward his girlfriend. “And Ben, I wanted to finally introduce you… This is Hope. Hope, this is Ben.”
“Herzlichen Glückwunsch!” Hope smiled, addressing Ben in German. “Ich hoffe du magst das… Um…” She seemed to be struggling to find the right world. “Gift?”
Zayne, Charlie, and Ben could not contain their laughter.
“Oh God, what did I say?!” Hope joined in their giggling.
Zayne loved that she was able to laugh at herself. “I think you wanted to say ‘Geschenk’, not ‘Gift’… You told him you hope he likes the poison.”
“Oh, shit.” She started laughing yet again. “And I’m guessing the fact that my wedding gift was a bottle of wine doesn’t help…”
The groom’s eyes widened. Ben had always been something of a connoisseur of fine wines. “Wine?”
She nodded, smiling. “And according to Zayne, it’s your favorite.”
“No way! You managed to find a bottle of Moonstone Dulcinea around here?!”
Hope shook her head. “I brought it from San Myshuno.”
“Wow… Thank you.” Ben said seriously. “That’s amazing… I guess I’ll just have to get Charlie to taste it first so I know it’s safe.” He added with a wink.
“And now you’ve officially met everyone.” Zayne smiled warmly at his girlfriend. “Congratulations! You survived.” He teased.
“And I only managed to threaten to poison one person!” Hope laughed. “Definitely a success.”
“They all loved you, y’know.” He continued seriously. “I can tell.”
“Well, they’re pretty great too.” She smiled. “You have a wonderful family, Zayne. And I’m so glad I was able to make a good impression on everyone.”
“What, were you nervous or something?” Zayne raised an eyebrow at her. “You’re amazing, Hope. You didn’t have anything to worry about.”
“Not nervous, exactly.” Hope shook her head. “But this was really important to me… Because you’re really important to me. The most important thing in the whole world, actually. And, well, I…” She paused for a moment, her lips stretching into a wide smile. “I have one more bit of German I’ve been wanting to try out… But I was waiting for the right time.”
“Oh yeah? What happened to me being a bad teacher?” He teased.
“I learned this one on my own.” She replied, beckoning him closer to her. Zayne felt a flurry of butterflies in his stomach as Hope leaned in, whispering softly in his ear. “Ich liebe dich.”
Zayne felt like he was flying. He reached forward, taking Hope into his arms and looking deeply into her big, beautiful eyes.
“I love you too.” He whispered.