Better Late Than Never

by Kat Hausler

Chase has never seen Stella look so beautiful. Of course, she doesn’t usually wear much makeup at work, let alone anything that shows off her figure like that strapless gown. But more than that, today’s the end of an era. The day they both know they messed up.

When Stella replaced Jenni as office manager three years before, Chase was disappointed. He’d had a thing for Jenni. Then he saw Stella. It’s a small office, so word soon got out that she was seeing someone. Chase didn’t let that discourage him. He and Stella have a solid, flirty rapport, and relationships don’t last forever. He had one brief one while he waited hers out. Come on, he thought, it’s not like she’s gonna marry the guy.

Except she just did. Nobody from work except Lisa was at the ceremony. Something about limited seating. Which is fine; they don’t really hang out outside of work, so inviting him might look weird. Besides, having the One That Got Away there could be upsetting.

She must’ve felt conflicted about inviting him to the reception, but maybe she couldn’t resist. Maybe she wanted him to see how beautiful she looks. Maybe she even wanted him to crash the ceremony, kick the doors open and speak now instead of forever holding his peace. Well, he blew it. But he’s here now. He and the whole team, invited so he wouldn’t stand out.

After years of Stella’s coy smiles and supposedly casual comments, Chase expected to get fair warning before she became permanently unavailable. As if he hadn’t had years to let her know she didn’t have to settle. They’re both so shy! Tragic.

What’s-his-face the groom is glued to her, too. Chase hasn’t had a moment alone with her, or any moment with her at all. His place is nowhere near the head table, which he isn’t taking personally because she has to keep up appearances. It makes sense to seat him with B-listers like Frank from Accounting, who’s easily a hundred years old, and sour-faced, gossipy Helen who brought her screaming baby along, like what? Only Lisa from HR made it to the bridal party and the best seat in the house because she’s pushy and always has been, using her onboarding role to lock Stella in for daily lunch and coffee breaks from the beginning. Things he regretted not doing after Helen asked him a couple months back if he’d seen the size of that diamond.

He knows Stella appreciates his subtle signals: gazing into her eyes, touching her arm when they talk, complimenting her. But maybe that’s not enough. She probably thinks he’s just being nice. Like today, when he was careful not to rush up like he’s the most important person in her life, unlike other rude guests. Instead, he waited for the right moment, the way he always has—he and Stella both. He knows it’s come at last when Stella, fanning herself with a program, passes right by his table on her way to the terrace. It’s loud and stuffy in the reception hall, so nothing could be more natural than joining her for some fresh air.

She’s looking over the railing at the garden below. As soon as he says her name, he knows this is their moment. He knows from the way she blushes when she sees him, pink from her hairline to her cleavage. From the way her eyes dart around to make sure they’re alone. Whatever came before and whatever comes after, this moment is theirs forever.

“Thanks for inviting me.”

“Sure, of course, it’s our pleasure. Are you having fun?”

He just smiles, because he knows. Her babbling is a dead giveaway. He holds the silence like breath as his eyes roam her deepening blush.

“You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” There it is at last, the signal he should’ve given her all along. Better late than never.

Even now, it’s not too late. What’s a divorce these days? Of course, she’ll have to get through the charade today, but what’s a day to the rest of their lives? She’ll figure out how to let what’s-his-face down easy. Probably what she’s about to say, except what comes out is:

“Lisa! Marianne! There you are!” This frantic joy at seeing her bridesmaids, garish in their silver gowns, can only be staged.

“Marianne, have you met Chase?” Lisa asks before he can say another word.

He grunts hello to the frizzy-haired ginger to let her—and busybody Lisa—know this is a private conversation.

“Could you, um, give me a hand?” Marianne actually takes him by the arm. He wants to pull away, but Stella nods, so maybe it’s part of the plan. Marianne is an ally, someone who knows Stella well enough to advise him. Someone Stella trusts to steer her in the right direction. Thank goodness Stella took on the burden of distracting Lisa. Even under the circumstances, Chase can’t imagine confiding in her.

As Lisa makes filler conversation about the ceremony, Stella watches with a blank smile until Marianne has dragged Chase back inside.

“Thank you so much,” she cuts in. “You guys are lifesavers! He was ogling me for like ten minutes, and you won’t believe what he said. I was about to climb over the railing.”

“Well, that’s what bridesmaids are for. Now take a deep breath; you’re flushed.” Lisa takes the program from Stella to fan her. “But seriously, I’m pretty sure he’s the reason Jenni quit, and he’s always made you uncomfortable. Why did you invite him?”

“How could I not when the whole office was coming? I didn’t think I’d get stuck talking to him with so many people around.”

 

Kat Hausler is a translator and author of the novel Retrograde, as well as many shorter pieces. She lives in Berlin.

 

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