"I feel like we're losing steam here."
"No, you are. I'm done. Everyone who is left to seat is on your side."
Gwen sighed. Planning a wedding was not for the faint of heart. "Honestly, I'm just sticking everyone left wherever there's room," she said.
Gwen's fiancé, Jane, came over to the couch where Gwen was sitting and slid down next to her to better look over her shoulder to the list of guests. Only a handful didn't have a table number next to their names. In perusing the list, Jane's eyes landed on two names in particular, and she couldn't help but laugh.
"I can't believe you talked me into inviting not one but two of your exes," she said.
Gwen laughed too. "They're not just exes," Gwen said. "They're special!"
"Right. The bloke for whom you were almost willing to stay a breeder and the earl's daughter."
"I've known Tom all my life, and he was incredibly supportive when almost everyone else in my life wasn't. Yes, he was my boyfriend before I realized I played for the other team, but more to the point, he's my friend. Besides I thought you liked him."
Jane sighed. "I do. He's great. Sybil, on the other hand—"
"Oh, please." Gwen said with a laugh and a roll of her eyes. "You said yourself you'd have shagged her if you had the chance."
"Precisely," Jane replied. "I don't want you to realize that your rich gorgeous girlfriend from uni is actually the one who got away."
"Do you know who's going to be the one who got away?" Gwen asked.
"Me if you don't stop this jealous nonsense."
Jane smirked. "I thought you said my jealousy was sexy."
Gwen threw the paper she'd been holding on the ground and in one swift move of her leg was suddenly straddling Jane. "It is."
Jane smiled, running her hands up Gwen's shapely legs. "What about the list?"
"I'll just sit them next to each other," Gwen said leaning down for a kiss. "Maybe they'll get pissed and shag."
Jane laughed. "Let's hope."
It had been a beautiful ceremony. The rain clouds that had threatened to put a damper on the festivities that morning had cleared by the afternoon, and the evening reception got off to a joyous start.
Tom hadn't been home to Ireland all year, so catching up with the handful of mutual childhood friends that Gwen had invited to her wedding was fun, even with the gentle ribbing about him having been such a rubbish boyfriend that he drove Gwen to lesbianism. He'd heard all the jokes before, but the distance of almost 12 years since—on the eve of leaving for university in England—Gwen told him she wanted to break up because she was gay had offered quite a bit of perspective. That Gwen was a lesbian actually made their subsequent friendship much less awkward and taught him to be open minded in ways that he might not have been otherwise.
After they all made it through the receiving line and gave Gwen and Jane their first hugs and congratulations as a married couple, the small group walked over to the bar at the edge of the hotel banquet room where the reception was taking place. Tom pulled off to use the restroom then headed over to their assigned table, where one person was already sitting.
She was a striking brunette with softly curly hair an inch or two above her shoulders. She'd been looking at her mobile as Tom weaved through the tables but looked up as he approached. She did a double take, then grinned, as if recognizing him, rather disconcerting to Tom who, now able to look into her blue eyes, almost buckled at the knees seeing how beautiful she was. He looked around the table for his name card and didn't find it until he was right next to her.
"Hello," he said quietly, pulling his chair out.
She continued to look at him with a knowing smile.
Tom took a drink from the water glass in front of him. After setting it down, he looked over at her with narrowed eyes. "Have we met?"
She laughed. "No, but I know who you are."
Just then, their four other table mates came back from the bar.
"Who's your friend, Tom?"
"Oh, do you all know each other?"
"We all grew up here with Gwen," Tom answered. "Guess you got stuck at the old schoolmates table."
The group went around the table introducing themselves.
They were Cait O'Donnell, Kelly Roark, Sean Sidmore, Annie O'Shea, Tom Branson and . . .
"I'm Sybil. Sybil Crawley. And I suppose I count as an old friend, though not as old as you all."
"Are you here for Gwen or Jane?" Annie asked.
"Gwen," Sybil answered with a smile. "We went to uni together, but I'm happy to be among all of you. She always spoke so fondly of her childhood. I've always had this idealized notion of Ireland, just from how much she loved to talk about it."
Everyone around Sybil chuckled at this.
Sean lifted up his pint glass and said, "Let's have a few of these, and we'll gladly set you straight."
"So you've all known each other since you were kids?" Sybil asked.
Cait spoke up. "Well, Gwen, Annie and I all grew up within a stone's throw of each other—"
"And made a rather fearsome trio," Tom finished, making Cait roll her eyes.
"And my mam was Gwen's mam's best friend," Sean added from across the table, "so we were always playing together whether we wanted to or not. Tom, there next to you, was my best mate and ended up Gwen's first boyfriend."
Sybil's smile brightened again. "Actually, I know all about him."
"You still haven't explained that," Tom said.
"Well, Gwen and I didn't just go to uni together," Sybil said, with a laugh. "I was her first girlfriend and often suffered from comparison to Tom despite being the gender Gwen was actually attracted to."
This set the whole group to laughing—though Tom did so while rolling his eyes.
"Aw, see, Tommy," Annie said. "There's hope for you yet!"
Just then, servers came around and began setting down their dinners. As the group tucked in, Sybil leaned over toward Tom and said, only for him to hear, "I didn't mean to embarrass you."
"It's all right. This lot loves nothing more than to laugh at my expense, and Gwen, whom I love and whose rights I will defend to the grave, did inadvertently give them a lifetime of material."
"Well, I can tell them that she only ever had glowing things to say about you."
"Would you mind?" Tom said jokingly, making her laugh, which brightened her eyes in a terribly becoming way. After a moment, he asked, "How did you know what I looked like?"
"She had a picture of you two in her room."
Sybil looked away for a moment, and Tom thought he noted a bit of wistfulness in her eyes as she picked at her plate with her fork.
"I still remember how much I wanted to meet you at the time," she said.
Sybil nodded. "It's been years, obviously, but I could have spotted you in a crowd twice this big."
"I'm flattered . . . I think?"
Sybil laughed and nodded again. "You photograph well—at least you did when you were 17."
"Unfortunately, I think whatever that photo was might have caught me at my peak."
Sybil looked at him from the side of her eyes. "I wouldn't say that."
Tom smiled, blushing slightly. It felt like she was flirting with him, but she was Gwen's ex, which meant . . . and anyway he'd always been something of a wishful thinker.
Across the room, the tinkling of glasses made it known that it was time for toasts, which were offered by Gwen's brother and Jane's cousin. Both were short and sweet, and the crowd answered with a loud chorus of, "Hear, hear!" and "Cheers!"
The usual dinner patter ensued as everyone ate and got to know Sybil, a doctor who lived-in London but had grown up outside of York. Cait was a newly engaged nurse, and like Sean, who was married and worked for his father's construction company, still lived in Dublin. Annie was a stay-at-home mom in Cork, but like the rest of their group had opted to come to the wedding alone the better to reminisce with old friends. Now that Gwen had married, Tom was the only one still single. He produced news segments for the BBC in London. Sybil found this very impressive and found herself talking with Tom more than anyone else at the table. He was as clever and charming as he was nice looking, affirming all the great things Gwen had said about him way back when. Tom didn't have the same foreknowledge of her, but he was no less intrigued.
After everyone had finished eating—both dinner and cake—Cait, Annie and Sean headed to the dance floor. Gwen and Jane had made it known that they'd chosen to forego a first dance and all the other reception rituals and wanted nothing but for everyone to cut loose and have a good time. Their guests obliged and a quick crowd surrounded them as the DJ launched into his set.
Tom and Sybil separately went to the bar to refresh their drinks and watched the festivities from the edges of it, but eventually both ended up back at their table at the end of the room, happy to have found themselves there alone again.
"How long have you been with the BBC," she said, breaking the ice again.
"Only a few months."
"Gwen did mention once that you were very into politics. Is that what you cover?"
"Sometimes," he answered. "Since I'm new I'm still on general assignment. And I must say, you have a very good memory. I suppose that's not surprising seeing that you're a doctor."
"Well, that's true enough, but I am really not exaggerating when I say Gwen talked about you all the time."
"How long were you together?" He asked.
"Three entertaining and drama-laden years, on and off. You were really only a specter over the first."
"We weren't much in touch for a few years after she left here, so I'd guess her clinging to the memory of our relationship was really her just clinging to the familiar. She always tended to do that when confronted with change and she took on quite a bit of it at the time. We were all shocked she chose to leave Ireland, but honestly, I think she wanted a fresh start and she deserved at least that much. They're all right with it now, but her parents did give her a hard time of it at first."
"Yes, I came to learn that. Though you were still a tough act to follow."
Tom laughed as he took a sip of his beer. "I never would have guessed I made that much of an impression—at least not more than your typical childhood sweetheart."
"She always said you were a good listener. Gay or not, finding a teenage boy like is like spotting a unicorn in the wild." Sybil laughed suddenly as a memory came over her. "She even said you took instruction well when it came to going down on her."
Tom, having just taken another drink of his beer, proceeded to spit it all back out, which just made Sybil laugh harder.
"Thank you for keeping that to yourself until everyone else at the table left."
"Why? It's a compliment!"
Tom laughed and rubbed his face with his hands, which had little effect on the blush on his cheeks. "She was the first girl I did anything with, so it's fair to say I had no idea what to do in that department, and I've always been the kind who follow instructions to the letter."
"That much is definitely not true of me, but I figure out how to keep them satisfied."
Tom arched his eyebrow at the way she winked at him when she said that, amused at how open she was. He took a long pull of his beer, internally telling himself over and over not to picture her and Gwen together and especially not to picture himself with her. Inadvertently being in love with a lesbian was a sweet story only if it happened once.
"I'm sure your experience with someone who told you what she liked came in handy later, though," Sybil said.
"Well, yes and no. I was flummoxed by it at the time—how clear and specific she was whenever our snogging wandered into more adventurous territory. But I did come to appreciate her being rather vocal about it. I wish more of the women I've been with were, to be quite honest. I guess you could say Gwen spoiled me in that regard."
"Tragically, straight girls are raised to please the men in their lives and are given little room to figure out what to do with themselves."
"Tragic indeed," he replied with a sigh.
"I can't decide if I'm more impressed by the fact that it sounds like you actually meant that or the fact that you drop words like flummoxed into casual conversation."
Tom laughed. "I'm told I'm also very good at sounding self-serving."
Sybil smiled at his self-deprecation. Sitting back in her chair she said, "The funny thing about you saying all this is that Gwen wasn't at all vocal with me, at least not at first. She thought since I was a girl I'd just know what to do. But it was my first relationship with another woman too, so we were both flying blind for a while, about sex and everything else. You were her go-to reference point for so long, I sometimes wondered if she'd invented you just to tease me."
"After she came out to me, I sort of did the same thing," Tom said. "Compare, I mean. I wasn't in a relationship longer than a few months for many years, but there was a level of comfort I reached with Gwen that felt impossible to find elsewhere. I didn't know whether it was owing to the fact we'd grown up together or the fact we were so young and unblemished by life or whether it was in my head the whole time, given her sexual orientation didn't really include me. Like everything we'd gone through was actually a false start and she kept going once she figured things out while I stayed stuck at the beginning."
"From what I got to hear about you it wasn't false. Just because some relationships aren't meant to last forever doesn't mean we weren't meant to have them. I've always felt that."
"That's a thoughtful way of looking at things. And likely explains why you and Gwen are still friends—at least good enough that you got an invite to her wedding."
"I think Jane just wanted make extra sure I understood that Gwen was off the market."
Tom laughed, but then got quiet. "Are there lingering feelings? I wouldn't judge you if so."
Sybil smiled. "No. Once things ended for good, it was a clean break for both of us. I adore her and always will but looking back on it, we were essentially very good friends who shagged—the whole wasn't greater than the sum of the parts, you know?"
"That's how it was for us too."
"Well, that and you're a man."
Tom laughed. "Yes, it always comes back to that. But, I mean, . . . even if she hadn't come out. I don't know that it would have been the end game for either of us. It's easy and safe to think so precisely because it can't be."
"I knew what you meant," Sybil said quietly. "But are there for you? Lingering feelings? I wouldn't judge you if so, either."
"That would make me a hopeless fool, wouldn't it?"
Sybil chuckled. "Fair enough." She watched him for a moment as he watched the crowd on the dance floor. "Do you still feel stuck at the beginning?"
He turned toward her again. "As the last of my childhood friends to be single, that pretty much speaks for itself."
"Well, I'm sure you've managed to please a fair number of girls along the way. That's not nothing."
"Are we talking about oral sex again?"
Sybil burst out laughing again, and Tom grinned. Maybe she wasn't available to him romantically, but he liked her just the same. Even if it was just the idea of being friends with her.
"Because if so, the answer is yes," he finished. "I'm not only good at being told what to do, I also aim to please, and please I certainly have."
Sybil laughed until she was wiping tears from her eyes. "See, you're not a lost cause then. Though, I'm starting to realize that you are terribly full of yourself."
"You're the one telling me what I wonderful boyfriend I was."
"I've been telling you how wonderful Gwen thought you were."
"And I'm saying it's made me feel rather good about myself. You can't hold that against me."
"I suppose not."
"THERE you two are!"
Tom and Sybil both turned to see a clearly drunk—but beaming with joy—Gwen coming toward them. As soon as they stood, Gwen launched herself into them, and Sybil and Tom both laughed, finding themselves in a group hug with a woman they'd both been in love with in their youth.
Gwen pulled back and grinned, keeping her hands on each of their shoulders as she faced them. "I'm so glad you both made it."
"And I'm so glad you're so happy, darling," Sybil said, coming in for another hug by herself this time, which Gwen happily accepted. "Congratulations—and thank you for sitting me next to Tom Branson, the man, the myth, the legend."
Gwen let out a loud laugh and covered her mouth with her hands, turning to Tom. "Oh my God! I had completely forgotten about that. Oh, Tommy, poor Syb got such an earful about you."
"She said it was all very good, so I couldn't possibly mind," he said, also coming in for a hug.
Gwen hugged him tightly and held his face in her hands as she pulled away. "My Mr. Almost Perfect," she said. "How are you still single!?" A serious look came over her face, and she asked. "I didn't ruin you for the straights, did I?"
Tom laughed. "No, I can assure you, you did not."
"You do need to settle down though, if for no other reason than maybe my granny will stop asking whether I could have another go at you."
"The same granny that's currently doing what looks like the foxtrot with Jane?" Tom asked.
Gwen turned and smiled widely even as she felt her eyes watering. Turning back to Tom and Sybil she said, "I got so bloody lucky with her."
"Yes, you did," Sybil said, genuinely beaming for her friend.
Gwen smiled at Sybil. Then, as if having another drunken epiphany, Gwen grabbed Tom again. "You should go for Sybil! She's not straight, but she loves everyone!"
Tom and Sybil both laughed, and Tom turned Gwen by her shoulders and gently pushed her back toward the dance floor.
"I'm just saying, I would approve if this happened," Gwen yelled, having turned back around but still walking backwards toward the dance floor. "In fact, if I were less pissed I could confirm that I may have orchestrated this whole thing."
"Go dance with your wife!" Sybil commanded.
Gwen saluted playfully and got lost again in the crowd.
And just like that they were alone again—as much as two people could be in a crowded room full to the brim with love.
"Please take no offense if I say, I hope we can be good friends," Tom said. "But I don't think another relationship with a lesbian is in the cards for me."
"Oh, um." Sybil's face seemed momentarily surprised, which puzzled Tom.
"I'm sorry I—"
"I'm not a lesbian."
Tom grew even more puzzled. "What? But—"
Sybil bit her lip. "I'm bisexual."
"So just now when she said you love everyone . . ."
"She meant I date both women and men."
Sybil smiled, with the brightness he'd noticed in her eyes all night.
"You didn't realize I've been flirting with you this whole time," she said with a laugh.
Tom turned so that they were not standing shoulder to shoulder anymore, as they'd been since Gwen had left them, but facing one another, and standing more closely together now than they had all night.
"Do you mean to say that—"
Sybil grabbed his face in her hands and kissed him square on the mouth, lightly but meaning every bit of it and pulling away before he had a chance to react. "Yes, that is what I mean to say."
Tom smiled in a way that made her realize that she hadn't even gotten to see the very best of him yet—and she was already knee deep.
"This evening just took a turn," he said, the timbre of his voice sending shivers down her spine.
She tried to contain her smile, but couldn't. "Did it?" she said finally.
"Would you like to dance, Sybil."
"I would Tom."
"Lead the way."
She took his hand and took a step toward the dance floor but stop and turned to face him again.
"As much as I love doing the Macarena—"
"Who doesn't," Tom deadpanned, making her laugh.
"Do you want to maybe get out of here instead?"
"I do," Tom said immediately. "But would that be terribly rude?"
Sybil's shoulders drooped. "Probably."
Tom sighed. "That said, I do believe we've hit all the reception milestones."
Sybil turned back to look toward the dance floor and caught a glimpse of Annie, Jane and Gwen trying to start a conga line. Gwen happened to look over at them and waving her hands at them enthusiastically, saying what looked like "GO!" and then flashing two thumbs before turning back to the task at hand.
Sybil laughed again. "I think maybe we're in the clear."
"So where to?" Tom asked squeezing her hand.
"You're the local."
"That's true, but we've established that I am at my best when told what to do."
Sybil smiled and grabbed both of his, pulling him out of the room, into the hotel lobby and toward wherever the night (and all the days and nights that would follow) would take them.