Chiming bells signaled high noon. The wedding planner readied the bridesmaids, flower girl, and ring bearer, wrangling the wedding party like a sheepdog. Her fingers wrapped, knuckles white, around the edge of a black binder.
“Marissa, I need you behind Elaine.” The girls shuffled.
Eric Baysman had reported to the church foyer fifteen minutes before the chaos was scheduled to begin. He watched the music transition from prelude sonatas to more familiar wedding tunes. He greeted his daughter’s old friends, and met her new ones, allies she had acquired at the palace. But mostly, he stood out of the way, leaning against a white column, waiting for his daughter to appear. He checked his Swiss watch, accurate to the hundredth of a second, which he wound regularly.
Noon was the official start time for the processional, but when had a wedding ever started on time? Still, as the wedding planner put the finishing touches on the walking order, Eric’s head swiveled more and more frequently. He had scanned the small room and its off-shoot hallways twenty times in the last minute when he decided to take matters into his own hands.
He knew the poor woman in front of him only wanted to get everyone in place to have the wedding go smoothly. But she was distracted. And he was worried about his daughter.
He snuck out like a fifteen-year old, ducking behind one of the ivory columns and heading back towards the changing wings on exaggerated tiptoes. Without his partner, the wedding would not be able to proceed anyway. He hoped his absence wouldn’t stress out the planner too dearly.
Orderly, and with the precision characteristic of the architectural era in which it was constructed, he found the church’s hallways easy to navigate. Then again, he had catalogued the building’s layout already. It was a habit from his military days, before Charlotte was born, memorizing the buildings in which he found himself.
Walking until he found the large white door of the bridal changing room, he then hesitated, his balled fist hovering above the doorknob.
“Charlotte?” He called. His voice was soft, and it would be a surprise if the sound waves penetrated the hard wood door. He tried again, louder, but still, no response.
He took a deep breath and pushed the door open, punctuating his entrance with another soft knock.
In the large room, his daughter sat in front of a mirror. A bay window to her right framed her profile in shadow. Her fingers were tangled in tendrils from her brown updo.
Eric watched Charlotte look down and touch her green and lavender bouquet with a smile stretching across her lips. She hadn’t noticed him yet, but she also didn’t seem distraught enough to be missing her own wedding.
“Charlotte,” he said again, and this time the sound carried. Her head whipped toward the door.
Her expression of surprise at being disturbed quickly changed into a wide smile—teeth and all. She stood from her lounge in front of the mirror, and walked over to greet her father in a hug.
Eric swallowed tears. Charlotte wore a beautiful cream dress, where delicate beads cascaded down her arms, back, and hips. She looked like the picture of elegance, of maturity, but all Eric saw was the rosy face of his baby girl, hidden beneath layers of age.
This was no time to be caught off balance by the realization that time was passing. He grabbed his nostalgia and pride tightly, balled them up, and squeezed them back down his throat for later.
The hug was over too soon.
“Is everything okay?” he asked, after he was sure his voice would not break.
Her forehead crinkled.
He clarified, “Are you having second thoughts?”
He hoped his voice didn’t reveal how much he wished she were. Not because he didn’t like Prince Andrew, or because he thought everything was happening too fast, but because he didn’t want Charlotte to trade him in for her new husband.
It had just been them, ever since Charlotte’s mom died when she was four. They were best friends, thick as thieves, even after Charlotte went halfway across the country for college and moved to the big city to work a big corporate job after graduation. Hell, they still called each other daily, despite living three time zones away. It was that sort of bond you have as a family when you only have each other. Sure, you have people you talk to and hang out with your own age, but your closest bond is with your blood.
Even though he savored their closeness, Eric flip-flopped almost daily between wanting his relationship with Charlotte to stay the same as when she was a kid—playing astronauts in the backyard, scrubbing grass stains out of dresses, watching cartoons nestled together on the couch, doing things together—and wanting Charlotte to be independent, to spread her wings. Was he a bad father for wanting to keep Charlotte close? Was he a bad father for thinking he was holding Charlotte back?
Last year, the answer to that question was taken out of his hands. Charlotte came home for Christmas, like she always did, back to her small hometown in rural Vermont. The houses didn’t change, and neither did the people. Snow dusted the ground, and the cold made cheeks rosy and homes cozy.
Charlotte’s job was demanding, and Christmas was one of the only times Eric got to see her in person all year. Sure, they had their daily calls, but it was nothing like seeing her. No form of communication comes close to holding your daughter in your arms.
He picked her up from the airport on Christmas Eve and brought her back to his small farm. He had saved the decorations to do with her—one of their favorite holiday traditions. Josh Groban played on the radio, tufted Santa hats were donned, and storage bins were unpacked.
Eric got out the ruler to set their stockings up, dividing the mantle into neat thirds. Charlotte arranged the nativity, and while she wasn’t looking, he readjusted the angles of the manger. Tradition.
As they were putting up the Christmas tree, and measuring out a reasonable drape for the yards of Christmas lights, the power went out at their house. While Eric fiddled with the breakers, Charlotte headed into town to find some pick-me-up hot chocolates. Going through the café doors, she slipped on an icy patch, right into the arms of the lost prince of England. His delegation had finished speaking in Canada and was heading down to New York to speak and then fly back to his country. They had taken a wrong turn somewhere dark and wooded on the I-81. Or, a right turn. Prince Andrew ended up in Nowhere, Vermont, just in time to catch Charlotte Baysman as she circled her arms wildly, trying not to fall into a snow bank.
He insisted on paying for the cocoas and escorting her back to the Baysman farm. Eyes alight with warmth, love, and Christmas joy, Charlotte looked so happy in his arms. Eric knew they would get married before Charlotte told him all about their meeting the next morning.
She flew back to England with the delegation two days after Christmas. They got engaged five months later, after weeks of long distance, long flights, and long phone calls. She quit her job. And now, almost a year after their first meeting, Charlotte stood in front of a mirror in an English church, minutes away from marrying the prince and leaving Eric. Her story was straight out of a Hallmark movie. Eric didn’t necessarily want her story to end like one.
But despite her tardiness, and Eric’s last (subtle) plea, it did not seem like Charlotte was having second thoughts: “Dad, what are you talking about?”
His brown eyes skimmed back and forth between her blue ones for a few seconds, as if searching for something. He nodded, bobbing his head like one of his prized chickens.
He smiled tightly and said, “Let’s get in there, Char. They’re probably on their third round of Pachelbel by now.”
Her eyes widened at his joke—she hadn’t realized she was so late—and she strode towards Eric once more. Entwining their arms together, she marched him to the door. She marched him all the way back to the main hallway of the church. Her grip was strong from years of working on the farm as a kid.
Eric kept his eyes dutifully forward and back dutifully straight, watching the architecture instead of thinking about Charlotte’s whirlwind romance. They did not speak. He did not cry.
The room was just as he had left it, albeit slightly more organized. Standing in a straight, lavender line, the bridesmaids waited just before the French doors that opened into the cathedral. The flower girl bounced on her heels, leading the line.
Eric’s eyes settled on the wedding planner, who gave him a piercing stare.
“Where have the two of you been?” She hissed, her voice a whisper in volume, but a shout in intensity. Her narrow nose curled. “Noon was ten minutes ago, and everyone is waiting. The pianist has no idea what to do.”
Eric watched his daughter’s smile fall off her face, and he gave her arm a reassuring squeeze with his free hand. “I didn’t realize a bride could be late to her own wedding.”
It wasn’t a reprimand, but the wedding planner‘s spine straightened. “Of course, Mr. Baysman, my apologies. I’ll give the pianist the signal to get started with the processional now.”
He nodded a “thanks.”
The wedding planner dashed between the doors, gave a quick thumbs-up, then resumed her post outside the double doors.
As she pointed at people in the wedding party, they began their walk down the aisle. The small flower girl skipped down the carpet, unceremoniously dumping all but a handful of the petals by the first three pews. Then, all seven bridesmaids strolled down the aisle to the beat of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. Ainsley and Marissa stepped out first—two girls he knew from Charlotte’s childhood, longtime neighbors and friends. The other five girls he was introduced to, but couldn’t remember the names of. They were a mix of English and American, allies Charlotte had found in the palace or at her job.
Then, it was the Baysmans’ turns. Right before they crossed the threshold, Eric turned to look his daughter in the eyes.
His smile brimmed with all sorts of emotions: pride, sorrow, joy, loss, nostalgia, and love. She looked so regal—so grown up—in her pearly dress.
He gently straightened the veil underneath a glittering tiara. “I love you,” he murmured.
“I love you, too,” she grinned. His little girl. His grown up little girl. His girl was about to become a princess.
He led her through the doors.
The church was old, historic, and looked the part. Mahogany stained as dark as Charlotte’s hair made up the pews. Stained glass windows broke up the dark interior, and a wine-red carpet snaked up the aisle.
Hundreds of people stood and turned to watch Charlotte process. Eric had eyes only for the priest and the prince at the end.
It was over all too soon. He placed Charlotte’s hands in Prince Andrew’s and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. Then it was finished. Then he took his seat in the front. Then Charlotte had a new best friend.
He put on a happy face for the beginning of the ceremony, watched his daughter beam at her groom through tearful eyes, but he knew he would have to come to terms with the wedding in the months to come. Today marked the end of a paradigm. He was reminded of Eleanor’s death—not that he was feeling grief, but rather that the announcement of the new world framework did nothing to prepare him for the event. Neither Eleanor’s cancer diagnosis, nor Charlotte’s engagement, readied him to experience Eleanor’s death or Charlotte’s wedding. The re-conceptualization of his life would come in the days afterward.
Change is good, he reminded himself. Change is inevitable. A mantra from twenty years ago when he lost Eleanor.
He refocused on the ceremony right as the priest began the infamous objection portion.
“Speak now,” came his creaky voice. Eric wondered if the priest came with the creaky church. “Or, forever hold your peace.”
To his surprise, he heard a throat clear from one of the back pews.
He did not swivel like the rest of the guests. Instead he watched his daughter’s face. Charlotte tore her eyes away from Prince Andrew and turned to the noise. Her eyebrows curled up; her lips parted. He watched Prince Andrew tighten his grip on Charlotte’s hands, laced with his own.
“The royal heir cannot marry this woman because she already married another man!” Eric finally turned to the noise. A reedy man stood brandishing a copy of the Daily Mail, claiming Charlotte married a man she dated back in college. In fact, she had called off their engagement only days after meeting Prince Andrew.
Eric rolled his eyes and turned back to the front of the church. Everyone knew Charlotte didn’t marry her ex-fiance. People believed anything these days, and the law just let tabloids run any sort of stories they wanted. Chaos.
Despite Eric ignoring the objection, the wedding did not go on. The priest did not correct the conspiracy theorist.
Instead, he cleared his throat, bit the inside of his cheek. “Erm, since this is an objection of the legal variety, it must be investigated.” He took a deep breath. “The ceremony will be terminated.” His clipped English accent suggested there would be no discussion.
Hushed outbursts erupted across the chapel.
“Father,” Charlotte protested. “you cannot be serious. This is nothing but an unfounded rumor and a ploy to weaken the public’s faith in my fiancé and me.” Strength laced her voice. Eric watched her eyes narrow. If he knew his daughter at all, he knew she would not take this objection passively. That’s my girl.
“Unless there is another credible witness who can vouch that you did not marry this man, currently in this church, I must delay this marriage. I am sorry, but it is protocol. We must investigate. Legally.”
It was Eric’s chance to savor a few more days with his daughter, to savor the order of their life up until this point. Just a chance to take a few more hours to adjust to her impending departure. They could curl up on his hotel sofa and watch reruns of Bones, just like they used to when she came home for winter breaks in college.
Charlotte’s eyes were locked on Prince Andrew’s. They were hard, filled with confusion and denial.
Love won out. “Father,” Eric said, standing up. “As Charlotte Baysman’s father, I believe I am qualified to say my daughter never married that man. She loves Prince Andrew, and Prince Andrew alone. The objection is nothing but hearsay.” In his periphery, he saw Charlotte’s head turn to look at him, and one graceful, gloved hand, shoot up to cover her mouth. “Let this ceremony continue, my good man.”
He hoped the reporters in the room got all that down. He was inordinately proud of how eloquent he sounded.
The priest sucked his cheeks and did a quick cost/benefit analysis of what might happen if the ceremony went on, if it didn’t. Finally, he decided Eric’s recommendation was good enough. “The objection is overturned. Stricken. We will continue with the vows.”
He opened the Bible once more and cleared his throat.
Charlotte still faced her father. Breathing in spurts, she gave him a quick smile. But Eric didn’t need the thanks: standing up for his daughter and her choice was the bare minimum a father and best friend should do, regardless of his own selfish thoughts. He beamed back and inclined his head, telling Charlotte in the secret language of fathers and daughters to look back at the Prince and say “I do.”
His daughter was leaving him, moving to a new country, for a new man, and becoming a Princess. She wouldn’t be able to come home for Christmas, string up the lights with her old man. Even the once expected daily calls might not continue. Everything was about to change with just two words.
But despite the chaos and uncertainty, Eric Baysman smiled. The details would come tomorrow.
Right now, he was proud.
He clapped louder than anyone else when the new couple raced back down the aisle.