KERRI'S WAR (Volume 3 of The King Trilogy)

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Chapter 39

The Ritz-Carlton, Naples. 5:30 P.M.

The hotel staff and the wedding planner had done it all with class and precision. The hotel’s ballroom was decorated for a wedding befitting royalty. The weather had also done its part, treating the guests to a spectacular sunset over the beautiful blue and tranquil Gulf of Mexico.

The reception line was ready, smiling, and guarding the entrance to the ballroom. It consisted of Christine and Steve, their respective wedding parties, Jamie Stewart, Vicky Anschutz, Carol Stewart-Martin, and Helen Monteith, Steve’s mother. As Kerri approached the line directly behind her father and Karen, her first eye contact with Steve was like a high voltage current had passed between the two. His facial expression spoke volumes. She knew in an instant that her presence had given him discomfort. She allowed herself the luxury of believing he regretted not contacting her, but resolved to do what she could to put him at ease. He was a friend, and that was all he could ever be.

“Kerri, I’m so glad you came,” Steve said, displaying his irresistible smile. He grasped her hand and kissed her cheek. “I hope you don’t mind. I’ve included you in my speech.”

Kerri was temporarily at a loss for words, but was reminded of why she had given him a ten when she met him in Muskoka in September. He looked so handsome, so happy, so unavailable. “Thanks for inviting me, and no, I don’t mind.” She glanced behind her to see a large and growing lineup. “I should move. I’m holding everyone up. Congratulations, Steve,” she said with the best smile she could muster, then continued on to greet Christine. “Congratulations, Christine. You’ve married a wonderful man,” she said, reaching for her hand.

Christine did not extend her hand. “Thanks,” she said, expressionless, then turned to present a gigantic smile to the woman behind Kerri. Christine had left no doubt that she regarded Kerri as a threat.

Cocktails were served for forty-five minutes, then Tom MacDonald, the master of ceremonies, lifted the microphone to his lips and called everyone to dinner. The guests all took their designated seats and were treated to a wonderful dinner of either fillet mignon or lobster, or both. An army of servers ensured that all wine glasses were constantly filled with the hotel’s most expensive selections.

The first to speak was Dana Snyder, who spoke well, but prattled on about private school experiences with her best friend Christine, and their happy, care free days of wealth and privilege. To some, a large part of her presentation sounded like a character assassination when she referred to Christine’s intensely competitive nature, and the trouble it had caused her. “I have to compliment her, however. She deserves it. There isn’t a single person at Wellesley during those years who wouldn’t get down on her knees and thank Christine for her competitiveness, and for the contribution she made to Wellesley blue...For so long I have known her, Christine had been a live wire, the life of every party. She has never, ever refused to take a position on anything, or to speak her mind. She is, quite literally, a fire looking for a place to burn.” She raised her glass. “To Christine Stewart, the life of the party and my best friend.”

Christine stood and smiled. “Thanks, Dana, for all your kind, and not so kind words. I promise never to get you into trouble again, until the next time...At this time, I would like to thank my father, without who’s contribution we wouldn’t be in this wonderful place and enjoying this fabulous day...I would also like to thank my mother, for traveling all the way from France to be here for me...I would also like to thank my bridesmaids, for being here, for partying with me, and for helping me into this incredibly expensive wedding dress.” She turned to face Steve. “Finally, I would like to thank you, Steve, for being here for me, for being my soul mate, for teaching me how to love, and for agreeing to spend the rest of your life with me...I love you.”

Next to speak was Tom MacDonald, who referred to Steve as his best friend, but also a man whom he has yet to, and may never understand. He explained it by giving several examples. The first was about his love life. He said that Steve was, without question, the best looking man in Muskoka. “Girls we all would have died for ignored us and fought with each other to be in his company. Instead of taking advantage of his advantage, he broke their hearts and chose none of them. It was as if he had a higher calling,” MacDonald said. The next example was about Steve’s athletic skill. He said, “Steve was a gifted athlete. He was so good, he saw everything in slow motion, while us mere mortals saw everything in real time. He could have gone on to be a professional at virtually any sport he chose, but didn’t. He chose poverty and obscurity over fame and a multi-million dollar salary.” His final example featured Steve’s career choice. “In addition to being an untouchable stud and a great athlete, he was a good student, good enough to be offered a Rhodes Scholarship. Confounding all of us, he turned the offer down and took a job with Paracon, to travel and work in some of the most exotic places in the world. We all thought it was only a matter of time before he became the company’s president. We were wrong. He quit and got lost until he found himself. Eventually he returned to Canada, bought a hovel in Port Carling, and tried to scratch out a living by building cottages for the rich and famous. So at the end of the day, he gave up fame and fortune to live alone and poor in Muskoka. Go figure.” He raised his glass. “I propose a toast to Steve Monteith, my best friend and a great human being. If anyone here can figure him out, I take my hat off to you. You’re a lot smarter than me.”

Steve stood and began by thanking MacDonald. “Thanks, Tom. Your diagnosis is quite correct. I may never figure myself out. I’ll promise I’ll let you know if I ever do...But now I’d like to thank my ushers for being my friends, for enduring my company in Miami, and for sharing this wonderful time of my life...Next, I’d like to thank Jamie Stewart for his enormous generosity, for sharing his beautiful home with all of us, for providing this wonderful dinner, and last but not least, for his daughter.” He raised his glass and smiled at Christine. “This toast is for you, Christine, the love of my life. Today you’ve made it complete. I may never know why you agreed to marry me. I am not worthy. My sincere hope, however, is that someday I’ll succeed in justifying your decision.”

He took a sip of champagne and paused to gather his thoughts.

“Christine may hate me for saying this, but I’m going to do it anyway. I was fortunate enough to receive a much coveted invitation to Jamie Stewart’s famous Guy Fawkes party last month. For those of you who don’t know, receiving an invitation to that party is like winning the lottery.” He scanned the audience and smiled. “If you don’t get one, well, you need a remake of your social strategy,” he said, igniting a roar of laughter. “I arrived with my precious invitation in hand, expecting to have Christine rush into my arms and kiss me savagely... No Christine. No savage kiss. To my horror, I found her at the swimming pool, lying on a deck chair, covered in a heavy grey blanket, and drinking iced tea. So being a clever individual, I concluded something was wrong. Christine doesn’t drink iced tea at parties... I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have the woman I love tell me she is going to have my child. I can tell you it’s wonderful, like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. In a few short words she made me the happiest man alive.”

Steve’s surprise announcement hit the audience like a bomb. He had told no one, not even his mother. The entire audience stood, cheered, clapped and whistled. The noise and excitement obscured the reactions of three women. Jennifer Adams covered her face with her hands and shook her head. Christine stood and hurried to the washroom. Kerri smiled, now aware of the reason Steve had failed to contact her. Jennifer excused herself and followed Christine to the washroom.

Steve raised his hands several times until silence was restored, then continued, “On another subject, one that’s extremely important to me, it’s my pleasure to introduce a very special person.” He smiled and pointed to Kerri. “Her name is Kerri King, and I’m honored to call her a friend. She’s the president of Iacardi & Sons... Tragically, the company lost nearly all of its New York employees in the terrorist attacks on The World Trade Center in September. Kerri also lost her closest friend on that awful day. She told me he was like a father to her...As most of you know, I also lost lost a father on that day.” He smiled and pointed to Kerri. “Thanks for being here, my friend.”

He paused and looked skyward. “I miss you, dad. Wherever you are, I hope you’re enjoying this day as much as I am.” He turned to face his mother. “Thanks for being here, mom. I’ll never be able to repay you for all you’ve done for me, but for now, just know I love you.”

The crowd stood and gave Steve another loud and standing ovation.

He continued, “Kerri probably doesn’t know it yet, but she is an inspiration to me. A lot of nasty things happened to her on that terrible day in September. I can only imagine how awful it must have been for her. I’m sure nobody would have blamed her if she just packed her bags and ran away from it all. But she didn’t do that. Instead of whining and feeling sorry for herself, she got back up, dusted herself off, and got back in the game. She has dedicated her life to the rebuilding of Iacardi, to put the company into a position to provide income to the estates of over three hundred employees who lost their lives on September eleventh. Without even trying, she has taught me how to deal with the loss of a loved one. In addition, and this is something for which I will be eternally grateful, she contacted my mother and succeeded in bringing her back from the depths of depression. Without consulting me, she arranged and paid for my mother’s transportation to this wedding. She even met mom at the airport and drove her here. Thank you, Kerri. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Kerri nodded in acknowledgement of Steve’s kind words and the ovation given her by the guests. She was still saddened that her relationship with Steve could never be more than a friendship, but relieved to know the real reason for his decision to marry Christine. He learned of her pregnancy at her father’s Guy Fawkes party. Kerri’s one and only date with Steve took place before that party.

Jennifer entered the washroom to find Christine hunched over a sink with her head lowered to the vomit position. “Obviously, you didn’t tell him,” she said, her hands on her hips.

Christine turned to face Jennifer with an expression of anger and indignation. Her face was beet red, her teeth bared. “Fuck off, Jennifer! I told you to mind your own business!” she shouted, then left to return to her seat at the head table. She arrived in time to hear her father completing his wrap-up speech and reiterating his invitation to “The mother of all New Years Eve parties.”

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