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He offered her a brief, nervous smile.
"Come on," she said in a barely audible whisper, "once more with feeling. Say I love you, and mean it. Show me what you're feeling."
He was a storybook prince, in his dove-gray swallowtail tux, every hair in place, adoration beaming from every pore. He stared intently into her eyes and, in a voice that broke with sincerity, said, "I love you."
"Yes," Daisy whispered back. "Got it," she added, and lowered the camera away from her face. "That's what I'm talking about. Good going, Brian."
The videographer moved in to capture the reaction of the newly minted bride, a flushed and pretty young woman named Andrea Hubble. Using his video camera as an extra appendage, Zach Alger gently coached the couple with a word or two and soon had them talking intimately about their love, their hopes and dreams, their happiness on this glorious day.
Daisy took a candid shot of the couple as they leaned in for another kiss. In the background, a loon beat skyward from Willow Lake, droplets of water sparkling like stars in the glow of early twilight. The beauty of nature added a sheen of romance to the moment. Daisy was good at capturing romance in her camera frame. In life—not so much.
She longed to feel the joy she saw in her clients' faces, but her own romantic past was a series of mistakes and missed chances. Now here she was, a screwup trying to unscrew her life. She had a small son who didn't realize his mom was a screwup, a responsible job and an unadmitted yearning for something she couldn't have—that shining love her camera observed through its very expensive lens.
"I think we're done here," Zach said, checking his watch. "And you guys have a big party to go to."
The bridal couple squeezed each other's hands, their faces wreathed in smiles. Daisy could feel the excitement coming off them in waves. "Biggest party of our lives," said Andrea. "I want it to be perfect."
It won't be, thought Daisy, keeping her camera at the ready. Some of the best shots happened at random, unplanned moments. The flaws were what made a wedding special and memorable. The glory of imperfection was one of the first things she'd discovered when she'd started working as a wedding photographer. Every event, no matter how carefully planned, had its imperfections. There would always be a groomsman facedown in the punch bowl, a collapsing pavilion tent, somebody's hair on fire when they leaned too close to the candles, an overweight, fainting auntie, a wailing infant.
These were the things that made life interesting. As a single mother, Daisy had learned to appreciate the unplanned. Some of her life's sweetest moments came when she least expected them—the clutch of her son's tiny hands, anchoring her to earth with a power greater than gravity. Some of the most awful moments, too—a train pulling out of the station, leaving her behind, along with her dreams—but she tried not to dwell on that.
She suggested that the newlyweds hold hands and hike across a vast, pristine meadow at the edge of Willow Lake. During the World War II years, the meadow had been the site of a communal Victory Garden. Now it was one of Daisy's favorite settings, particularly at this golden hour of the day, when time hovered between afternoon and evening.
The meadow was suffused in the last pink and amber of the sun's rays. This moment, for Andrea and Brian, was perfect. The bride led the way, walking slightly ahead of him with her chin held aloft. The groom's posture was protective, yet he exuded joy from every angle of his body. The breeze kicked up her gown so that the shadows connected the two of them like a delicate dark web, the unrehearsed drama of the movement coinciding with the firing of the camera shutter.
Checking the viewfinder of her camera, Daisy suspected this might be an iconic shot for this couple.
Except.. .she zoomed in on a small spot on the horizon.
"Damn," she muttered.
"What?" Zach asked, leaning to look over her shoulder.
"The Fritchmans's dog, Jake, got loose again." There he was in high-resolution glory, silhouetted against the sweeping sky, taking a crap.
"Classic," Zach remarked, and went back to coiling his cables and organizing his gear for the wedding reception.
Daisy pushed a button to tag the photo for later retouching.
"Ready?" she asked Zach.
"Time to party on," he said, and they followed the bride and groom along the lakeshore path to the main pavilion of Camp Kioga, where the reception would take place. The couple made a pit stop to freshen up for their grand entrance, and Daisy prepared to document the festivities.
She'd liked the bride from the start, and she had always loved the setting of Camp Kioga. The serene lakeside resort was a historic landmark on Willow Lake, and it belonged to Daisy's grandparents. Tucked into the wildest corner of Ulster County near the town of Avalon, Camp Kioga had been founded as a retreat for the elite of New York City, a place where the well-heeled could escape the steamy summer heat.
These days, the camp had been transformed into a luxurious resort by Daisy's cousin Olivia. Last year, the reinvented retreat had been featured as a destination wedding venue on www.Iamthebeholder.com, and bookings were steady.
To Daisy, Camp Kioga was more than a beautiful setting. She had spent some of her life's most joyous—and most painful—moments here, and the entire landscape had shaped her aesthetic as a photographer.
The firm she'd worked for since finishing college, Wendela's Wedding Wonders, was a local institution, and Daisy was grateful for the job. The work was steady, the hours crazy and the income adequate, if not lucrative. There would never be a shortage of people wanting to get married. And okay, she did dream of branching out from weddings and portraits, because her deepest love was something she termed narrative nature photography.
At heart, she was a storyteller. Her photos offered intimate glimpses through her lens. She captured the fragile, ephemeral nature of the world around her with pictures that haunted her heart, arousing deep emotions from the simple grace of trees dipping their branches in the water, the abundance of a green-shadowed forest in springtime, the epic shape of granite crags above a gorge. In college, she'd always been under deadline pressure because her subjects would not be rushed—tadpoles transforming themselves, a fawn finding its way through a meadow, the stillness of a heron as it waited in the marshy shallows for its next meal.
Photography was where she'd found her artist's voice and a passion for the work. The fascination had begun with the gift of a Kodak camera on her eighth birthday. She had captured a shot of her grandma Bellamy learning to Hula hoop that day, experiencing a moment of such satisfaction that it felt like a benediction. It was a moment that would never again be repeated; she had frozen it forever in time and memory, and despite the fact that it featured her own grandmother, there was something universal in the shot that anyone could understand.
That was the moment she'd discovered the power of photography. She often wished for more time to produce fine art with her camera, but even fine artists—and their small sons—had to eat. For a single mom, steady work trumped high art every time. And the photo snobs seemed determined to overlook a key fact. In the midst of a wedding, opportunities abounded for finding a transcendent moment. A good photographer simply knew where to look for them and how to capture them. At a wedding, you could find people at their most real. The same story played out in endless ways and infinite variety, and for Daisy, it held a kind of fascination.
She was intrigued by the mysterious alchemy that drew a couple together and compelled them to embark on a journey through life together. A camera, properly wielded, could tell the story, over and over again in all its manifestations.
Perhaps this was because Daisy longed to understand it for herself. Perhaps if she became the world's foremost expert at capturing life's happiest moments, she would figure out a way to find her own.
The wedding wasn't perfect. In the middle of the toast, Andrea Hubble's mother became tongue-tied and dissolved into tears. The bar ran out of champagne in the first hour, and the DJ blew a speaker. One of the bridesmaids broke out in hives from something she ate, and the five-year-old ring bearer went missing, only to be found fast asleep under a banquet table.
Daisy knew that within hours, none of this would matter. As the DJ broke down his set and workers disassembled the tables, the blissfully happy couple headed off in the night for the Summer Hideaway, the resort's most secluded cabin. Her final shot, lit by the moon and her favorite off-camera strobe flash, showed them walking down the path toward the cabin, the groom lifting his arm and twirling the bride beneath it. No question the night would go well for them, Daisy thought, putting away her things with a restless sigh.
The wedding guests occupied Camp Kioga's other lodgings—old-school bunkhouses, A-frame cabins or luxurious rooms in the main lodge.
In the work van on the way home, Zach cracked open a can of Utica Club purloined from the bar and held it out to Daisy.
She shook her head. "No, thanks. It's all yours." Contrary to her demographic—recent college grad—she wasn't much for drinking. Truth be told, drinking had never done her any favors. In fact, the reason she'd become a mom at nineteen had everything to do with drinking. If Charlie ever asked her where babies come from, she would have to find a way to explain that he'd come from an abundance of Everclear punch and a weekend of supremely bad judgment.
"Here's to you, then," said Zach. "And to Mr. and Mrs. Happily Ever After. May they stay together long enough to pay off the wedding."
"Don't be such a cynic," she chided him. In his own way, Zach Alger had had a rough go of things, too. They made a good team, though. He was more than an assistant and videographer to her. He was one of her favorite—though reluctant—subjects to photograph, with strong, angular features and unusual Nordic coloring, so pale he was sometimes mistaken for an albino. He was totally self-conscious about his white-blond hair, the kind that seemed to absorb color from other sources. Daisy had always thought it was cool. Some of the images she'd shot of him had been picked up commercially. Apparently his look—the pale coloring and wintry eyes—was popular in Japan and South Korea. Somewhere in the Far East, his face was selling men's cologne and cell phone minutes.
Not enough to pay the bills for either of them, however. He was just out of college, too, skilled at high-tech media. What she liked most about Zach was that he was a good friend—nonjudgmental, easy to talk to.
"I'm just saying—"
"Don't worry about it," she said. "You're such a worrier."
"Right, like you're not."
He had her there. Daisy didn't see any way around being a worrier, though. Having a kid tended to do that to a person.
"Maybe if we pool all our worries," she suggested, "we'll generate enough energy to fuel the van."
"I only need enough to make it to the end of the month." Zach guzzled the beer, belched and fell quiet, staring out the window at the utter nothingness that was the town of Avalon late at night. The locals joked that the sidewalks rolled up by nine, but that was an exaggeration. It was more like eight.
She and Zach didn't need to fill the silence with chitchat. They'd known each other since high school, and they'd both endured their share of trials. While she became a teenage mom, Zach had been dealing with his dad's financial meltdown and subsequent incarceration on corruption charges. Not exactly a recipe for serenity.
Yet somehow they had each muddled through, a little worse for the wear but still standing. Zach was methodically working his way through a mountain of student debt. And Daisy had made a series of bad choices. She felt as if she were living life backward, starting with having a kid while still a teenager. Then came school and work, and all that was swinging into balance, but one thing eluded her. It was the thing they photographed nearly every weekend, toasted and celebrated by her ever-changing array of clients. Love and marriage. These things shouldn't matter so much. She wished she could believe her life was just fine, but she'd be kidding her self.
It was a challenge to avoid looking back and second-guessing herself. She could have had a shot at marriage. A surprise Christmas Eve proposal had come at her out of the blue and sent her reeling. Even now, months later, the very thought of it made her hyperventilate. Thinking back about a night that might have changed her life, she flexed her hands on the steering wheel. Did I make the right choice? Or did I run away from the one thing that could have saved me?
"So, is Charlie with his dad tonight?" Zach asked, breaking the silence.
"Yep. They're the dynamic duo." She slowed the van to avoid a small family of raccoons. The largest of the three paused, turning glittery eyes to the headlamps before herding the two small ones into the ditch.
Charlie's father, Logan O'Donnell, had been as messed up and careless as Daisy herself was, back in the teen years. But like Daisy, Logan had been transformed by parenthood. And when she needed him to take Charlie for the night, he gladly stepped up.
"And what about you and Logan?" Zach pried.
She sniffed. "If there's anything to report, you'll be the first to know." Things between her and Logan were complicated. That was the only word she could think of to describe the situation. Complicated.
"But nothing." She turned a corner and emerged onto the town square. At this hour, no one was around. Zach lived in a small vintage walk-up over the Sky River Bakery. As teenagers, they had both had jobs there. Now a new generation of kids managed the giant mixers and proofing machines in the wee hours of the morning. Hard to believe, but Daisy and Zach weren't the kids anymore.
She swung into a parking spot. "I'll be in the studio by ten tomorrow," she said. "I promised Andrea a sneak peek by next Saturday."
"Geez," he groaned. "Do you know how many hours I shot?"
"Actually, I do. It's only a sneak peek. I like this bride, Zach. I want to make her happy."
"Isn't that the groom's job?"
"She has four younger sisters."