Plus-One With A Vengeance : 24 / 29

Plus-One With A Vengeance : 24 / 29

[ An Altered Fates Story ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux


"If you want peace, prepare for war."
— Vegetius


Often at weddings there's a lull between the ceremony and the reception. It can last a good hour or more, while the bridal party and the closest family are whisked away to pose for formal photographs.

While it might seem like the worst, most inopportune moment for taking pictures, it really has to happen exactly then. That's the moment when the bride's appearance is at the apex of its perfection.

Hence, for the guests, it means champagne, canapes, and a period of mixing and milling and mixing, greeting and visiting. It's a distraction, a bit of misdirection, an attempt to disguise what's simply a period of waiting...

Gradually and naturally, once the smalltalk is exhausted, a feeling spreads through the crowd of guests; a sense of having waited long enough, an expectation that the bride and groom should speedily return so that time can flow normally once again.

Also, the guests are getting hungry. Hungry for something more substantial than finger food.

A slow migration begins. The dining room exerts its magnetic pull. The guests don't even pretend to resist, although in this case, the dining room is still off limits. There are tables and chairs; there is a place for every guest, but no one is allowed to take their place and perhaps tear into a breadroll — or, even better, snap off a breadstick or two. Not yet! The red-velvet rope is as impenetrable a barrier as a steel door. The velvet rope has an advantage, though, of letting the guests see, even if they cannot touch.

There is a concession, though: one more tease before dinner, and this tease is both satisfying and engaging. It's something everyone can sink their teeth into. It's posted in two copies, one on either side of the entrance. The last tease before dinner, is the seating chart.

The seating chart is one of the most complex artifacts produced by man. It is the product of many sleepless nights, and headache-inducing days. It is at once a juggling act, an exercise in diplomacy, and a laboratory for defusing potentially explosive familial combinations. No map ever drawn, on earth, on sea, or in outer space, has ever presented a cartographer as daunting a challenge as the seating chart for a wedding reception.

At some point during its contruction — or more likely, during the adjustments that inevitably follow — the list of who-will-not-sit-with-whom is broken on the rack of necessity. The bride and her mother, along with anyone else involved in creating the constellation of guests, holds her breath as she sets two names at the same table — the nitro to someone's glycerine — and prays that manners and the fear of "making a scene" will prevail; that no food will be thrown, no hair will be pulled, no voices will be raised.

And all the people said Amen.

Perhaps I experienced this universal tension, this perturbation in the Force; maybe that's why I found myself holding my breath. What reason did I have, really, to patiently and opportunistically (no pressure!) wend my way toward the seating chart? I didn't need to see it; Robin had already told us the composition of our table, the Friends table. I guess I wanted a confirmation in black and white, and I did want to know where in the dining room our table was placed, and what tables (and people) were near.

And of course — and at this thought I found myself holding my breath once again — I wanted to see how close, physically, I'd be, vis-à-vis Amber.

I also hoped and nearly prayed that Kass and Tamara would end up at the very next table, exactly at our backs, so I had only to lean back in my chair to find company and encouragement. If I was lucky, just the sight of the lithe, diminutive Kass and her iron fist would be enough to keep Amber in line.

On my way there, I didn't run into Kass or Tamara in the flesh, but suddenly out of the blue, I found myself standing next to Kitty, of all people. "I love your dress!" I truthfully and spontaneously exclaimed. "It's so cool and dramatic!"

"Do you really think so?" she asked, full of uncertainty. "I love it, but now, seeing what everyone else is wearing, I'm afraid my choice is just too much." Her dress was definitely NOT too much, but it was a lot: she was sheathed in a jet black, floor-length dress. The material had a little shine to it that was more apparent when she moved. It was also less opaque that it seemed at first glance. Certainly the neckline was daring, but even more daring was the split up the length of her right leg. "You can't wear any underwear with this one," she confided. "Can you tell?"

"I guess it depends on how far that split opens at the top," I told her, smiling. She giggled. "What material is that?" I asked her. "Can I feel it? It looks super-light."

"It's called georgette," she replied, "it's a silk blend. Silk and something synthetic. Are you sure I didn't go too far? It's not over the top?"

"No, Kitty, honest and truly, I love it. It's not too much. You look amazing."

"I like your dress, too," she told me, looking me up and down. I was wearing a tea-stained floor length dress with long, tight, lace sleeves. The collar showed a lot of clavicle — which is to say, it was pretty generous with my cleavage.

"I had my doubts about it, especially this part—" I guestured at my chest "—but Max was so enthusiastic—"

Kitty laughed. "Men are such dogs, aren't they?"

"Speaking of," I posed, "Where is Claus?"

She rolled her eyes and gestured through the crowd behind me. "He's got his nose buried in the seating chart. He thinks he's some kind of archeologist — I mean, anthropologist, not that it makes any difference. Come on, quick, the Red Sea is parting." There came an unexpected gap in the wall of people, and with a few quick steps, we found ourselves on either side of Claus, who crouched low with his face inches from the oversized card. He studied the chart with a surprising amount of focus and attention.

"You look like you need a magnifying glass, Mr Holmes," I quipped.

"Oh, hello, Lorelei—" he glanced up at me for a quick moment, then returned his eyes to the chart. "I was just commenting to some young lady — where did she go? — that these seating charts are a fascinating socio-anthropological construct. At best they're designed to minimize or even neutralize nascent conflicts — to prevent arguments or outright fights."

"Is that so?" I asked. Kitty frowned and shook her head. "Don't encourage him," she whispered in a good-natured tone.

"And at worst?" I prompted.

"At worst, they provide material for rom-coms." He laughed. Then, he scratched his head, reminding himself. "Do either of you know the name Oswald Chamberlain?" he asked, pointing at it. When we both responded in the negative, Claus explained, "He's Amber's plus-one. I thought you'd know him, Kitty. You and Amber are so close. Anyway, with a name like that, he could be a politician or a basketball player." After a pause, he added, "Or both, I suppose."

"Robin calls him a man of mystery," I offered.

Claus nodded sagely. "Perhaps he is a cat's paw."

"What's a cat's paw?"

"To tell the truth, I'm not quite sure. The phrase just popped into my head. I'm sure I've looked it up in the past, but at the moment I can't recall." He nodded, making a mental note to himself. "Perhaps Mr Chamberlain can tell us himself."

"Oh, Claus," groaned Kitty affectionately. "Why would he?"

"Ah," Claus observed. "You mean that if he is, in fact, a cat's paw, he would likely be the last person to know."

"No, Claus, that's not what I meant at all. I mean, why not ask him the capital of South Dakota? Why would he know? It's so irrelevant!"

Claus blinked several times at her apparent non sequitur before he was gently pushed away from the seating chart by other interested and curious parties.

During all this, Kitty had stepped forward and put her finger on the Friends table in the diagram. She leaned closer and read the names. After a deep breath, she compared the room layout to the chart, locating our physical table. Then she stepped back to give me a chance to do the same. The names were just as Robin had said.

Before I had a chance to locate Kass and Tamara's table, I saw Kitty's demeanor change. In a moment, she'd gone from social and chatty to serious — with a dash of urgency. In any case, she wasn't smiling now.

"Um," she began, tapping the chart as she spoke. "I see they sat Amber right next to Max."

"Yeah, I saw," I said with a shrug. "I think I'm pretty well resigned to bumping into her. After all, what can I do?"

"I'd think someone would know," she replied.

"Do you mean someone would know there was a potential conflict?" I asked. Kitty gave a series of quick nods, yes.

I wanted to tell her that I doubted Nessa was au courant with Max's affairs of the heart, but something else occurred to me instead. "Maybe Amber asked Nessa to seat her exactly there," I suggested. "I heard she got pretty close to Nessa."

"Good point." Kitty's lips were drawn in a tight line. "Still..."

She took my arm and pulled me aside, in hopes of not being overheard.

"Listen, Lorelei, I have to tell you something, and it really pains me to say it, because — as you know, Amber is one of my oldest and best friends."

"What is it?"

"I feel like I'm betraying a confidence, do you understand?"

"Kitty, don't worry. I know about Max and Amber. They have history."

Kitty, clearly uncomfortable, shook her head. That's not it. She struggled for a moment before she was able to say it out loud. "Amber... she... has never really let go of Max." She looked me in the eye, to see how her news was landing.

"Okay," I acknowledged. "I think I knew that."

"She... sees you as an... interloper. She says that you're the interference, and she's the signal."

I smiled, and would have laughed, if Kitty's expression were not so full of concern and inner conflict.

"She's the meat, and I'm the potatoes," I joked. "Or... I'm the appetizer and she's the main course."

"Oh, Lorelei, come on, I'm being serious!"


"Anyway... many times, Amber has said that Max is her destiny, and she is his. His destiny, I mean." Another uncomfortable pause. I nodded.

"Amber says that this wedding will be a kind of kamikaze mission for her." She rubbed her cheek nervously as she said the word kamikaze. "Do or die. She said she's going to challenge her destiny, and see how it responds."

"She's going to challenge Max?" I asked, not quite getting it.

"No, not Max — destiny. I don't know what that means. Amber kind of operates in another realm. She... lives..." Kitty released a painful sigh. "Amber lives in her own world. She's very mystical. She believes that this world has to correspond to what she feels and sees in her inner world. Microcosm and macrocosm."

I struggled to find a funny word that rhymed with -cosm, but nothing came to me. So I shook my head. "Is she going to challenge me?" I asked. "I mean, what? Is she going to beat me up?"

"No," Kitty replied, looking a little annoyed. "Look: she feels like — okay, I got it. She feels that her destiny is a promise. That's a thing she says: Your destiny is a promise from the universe. It's a kind of guarantee of how the future will be."

I scrunched up my face and shook my head. It wasn't making sense. "So, she's not going to challenge Max, and she's not going to challenge me? What else can she do?"

Kitty scoffed in frustration.

"Kitty," I told her, "I don't understand, I'm sorry! What does challenge her destiny mean in practical terms? I'm sorry, but I've never heard that phrase before."

Kitty took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. "No, I'm sorry. I felt like I had to warn you, but honestly, I don't know what to warn you about. I have no idea what she has in mind. I'm guessing she wants to stage some kind of showdown, some kind of comparison, I guess, where Max will be forced to choose." She looked me in the face again. "He'll have to choose between you and Amber."

I smiled and shrugged. I felt pretty confident that Max had already made his choice. His choice left Amber in his rear-view mirror, and there was no way for her to break out of it. Even so...

"She's not going to pull some kind of shit at the reception, is she?" I asked.

Kitty looked at me in disbelief. "She's not that kind of person!" she exclaimed.

"Okay," I said once again. "Thanks for telling me. Thanks for the warning."

Kitty's shoulders moved in a kind of half-shrug. "You're welcome." Then she looked me in the eyes with an almost pleading look, and asked, "Can I hug you? I feel really uncomfortable, and I don't want to be alone in this feeling."

"Of course," I replied, and opened my arms.

I didn't know what to make of Kitty's warning. It sounded like she was telling me that Amber was gunning for me, but only in some cosmic sense that didn't matter at all.



Somewhere in the milling and churning, Delphine and I crossed paths again.

"Hey!" she called out. "Did you have any ugly babies yet?"

"Oh yeah, dozens," I shot back, laughing. "What about you?"

"Oh, yeah, me too," she replied. "But I left them with an old woman who lives in the woods. I'm hoping she can provide them with the kind of life that I'm not able to give."

Aunt Doris unfortunately happened to be close enough to hear our exchange, and she exclaimed, almost spitting, "Disgraceful! You girls are simply disgraceful! If your mothers could hear you... Oh!" and she strode off before Delphine could cook up a hot bon mot.

Instead, watching Doris storm off, Delphine bent over sideways, laughing silently, until she came close enough to grip my arm.

"You're really, really, good," she said. "Most people — if I wished dozens of ugly babies on them — would think I was just a mean-spirited bitch. But you—"

"Oh, Delphine," I chuckled. "Poor Aunt Doris! She's going to have a conniption fit before the day is over."

"A conniption— what?"

"Oh, it's something my Dad used to say," I told her. "Never mind."

Delphine nodded. Then she scoffed and waved Aunt Doris out of consideration. "She goes looking for it!" Delphine declared. "She haunts me, hoping I'll say something that will keep her blood pressure up."

In fact, Doris was eyeing the two of us as we spoke. "Can Doris read lips?" I asked.

Delphine, caught up short, blinked at me. "What?" she asked, distracted and confused.

"Never mind," I told her. "Dumb joke."

"Uh, okay," she said, and drew closer to me. "Seriously, though. I was looking for you. There's something I want to ask you."

"Okay." My eyes were twinkling, wondering what new outrage she was preparing. Delphine, gave me a little impatient shake. "Hey! This isn't a joke. I can be serious, too, you know."

"Okay," I conceded. "What did you want to ask me?"

"I heard you have this cousin, Elliot. That's his name, right? Elliot Beerman?"

"Beekman," I corrected. She nodded. I wondered where she was going with this; what kind of joke or prank she was building toward.

"I heard that he's good looking. Somebody said he's like a male version of you — which I honestly cannot imagine, but whatever. I also heard that he's a really nice guy. Is that true? Is all of that true?"

"Uh, yeah, it's true."

She nodded several times. "Nice," she commented.

Then she moved in for the kill: "Is he single?"

THAT was a question I really didn't expect.

"Um, yeah, he's single," I replied.

"Nice," she said once again, nodding as she moved on.



Kass and Tamara were next in my series of random encounters. Tamara was holding forth about the fashion choices of the guests in general, much to Kass' guarded amusement. "You're too severe," she chided Tamara, though she smiled as she said it. "And you ought to keep your voice down. Your voice really carries, you know." Clearly this was well-worn ground for both of them.

"It's what I do," Tamara replied. "It isn't just what I do for a living. It's who I am. I'm resigned to being myself. You should be as well."

When I first met Tamara, she was celebrating the celebrity sale of one of her outfits for a red-carpet event. That night, her Texas accent came out in a slow drawl, but today, in this sunlit afternoon, she was a lot crisper and quicker — to the point of being downright chirpy. It took me a few moments of listening until I finally figured out that when she spoke more quickly, she sounded like Kelly Clarkson, y'all. A catty Kelly Clarkson. Kass' face alternated between expressions of surprise, horror, and laughter.

"Oh, darlin', catch this one — bless her heart — chiffon and mothballs. Oh my."

"Looks like the Salvation Army marked that donation RETURN TO SENDER AND DON'T LOOK BACK."

Kass protested, "Someone will hear you, hon, and they're going to take offense."

"Do you have anything disparaging remarks about what I'm wearing?" I challenged her.

Tamara suppressed a small smile. "It'd be a sin if I did!" she declared. "That's one of mine!" Her critical eye traced me from toe to head and back again. "Twirl for me, hon, slow twirl." I did, and she nodded, grudgingly. "It looks good on you, of course it does, but it's one of my more conventional creations. I wish you'd gone with a bolder choice. You could have made a real statement."

"You mean the one with the silver hot pants, the eighteenth-century corset, and the hoop skirt that was open in the front."

"Exactly!" Tamara agreed, wagging her finger at me. "I have it in my van, if you come to your senses and want to change."

"Tamara, I couldn't wear that dress! I want to fit in here, I don't want to be noticed."

"Hmmph. That dress you're wearing is too good to fit in with the mess most of the people are wearing here."

"Oh, come on, Tamara..."

Tamara sighed. "Fine, fine! I've indulged myself enough, I guess. I can set a rock on my tongue for the rest of the party."

Kass' dress, another of Tamara's creations, was a step out of the norm — very eye-catching, but not too far out. It was a dress that ended a few inches above the knee, made of a dark violet silky cloth that was gathered in large vertical folds. It seemed as though the dress was made from the petals of an enormous flower. The long sleeves that ran from her shoulders to a pair of tight cuffs, were split, so that — depending on how she held herself — her arms where sometimes bare, sometimes hidden. The front was open from neck to waist, but two columns of cloth, carefully bunched together, completely covered her breasts. It was an amazing outfit. It was hard to take your eyes off her.

Tamara's outfit, on the other hand, was far and away the most... um... distinctive dress in the place. Talk about a bold choice and making a statement! She essentially was wearing her own take on a zoot suit. The material was black, with faint, light-brown pin stripes running vertically through the jacket, which descended to the middle of her thighs. The shoulders of the jacket were padded, making her seem even wider than her big-boned frame. She wore a mannish white dress shirt under the jacket, and a pair of bulky, too-wide pants that piled up around her black stiletto ankle boots. A long watch chain hung from the waist of the pants.

"Check this out," she said, letting the watch descend along its chain until it nearly touched the ground. Then she bent her knees, keeping the rest of her body, from knees to head, straight as a board, as she whirled the watch on its chain in a slow, lazy circle.

"How 'bout that, huh?" she demanded. "Pure Cab Calloway, right?"

"It's amazing," I told her. "You are totally unique."

Tamara grinned, straightened up, and slipped the watch back in her pocket. A lot of the guests were watching her now, which seemed to please her.

"Tamara," I asked, "You said you had that eighteenth-century dress in your van — why?"

"What do you mean, why?"

"Did you bring it because you hoped I'd be wearing it?"

"No," she said. "I would have brought it even if you weren't here." She seemed puzzled by my questions.

Kass jumped in. "Tamara always brings a load of dresses."

"Yes, yes, of course!" Tamara affirmed, getting it now. "See? An event like this opens people's hearts and wallets to the world of fashion, of haute couture and even maybe the avant garde. It's important for someone like me to be ready to showcase my creations. Do you know how many connections I've made — how many sales I've made — by letting people see my creations and touch them with their hands? My van isn't a van — it's a traveling showroom. I use it a lot." She thought for a moment, then said, "You've seen everything that's in there. Otherwise I'd let you have a look."



"Oh!" I called, suddenly remembering as I walked away. "Where are you guys sitting? I didn't get a chance to find you on the seating chart. Somebody shoved me out of the way."

"We're stuck in the far corner, way in the back on the left," Kass said. "Somebody told me it's the Singles table, which kind of pissed me off, since we're a couple." She gestured back and forth between her and Tamara.

Tamara grinned. "Now that she's finally out, Kass gets angry when somebody doesn't know."

"Well..." Tass conceded with a shrug.

"Oh, hey!" Tamara exclaimed. She'd suddenly remembered something as well. "Did you see your girl Amber? What she's wearing?" Tamara rolled her eyes dramatically. "Dear Lord. That girl came to a wedding reception — a wedding reception HERE, in a literal mansion — wearing an old tennis dress. Can you believe that? An old tennis dress."

"It's not a tennis dress," Kass protested.

"It certainly looks like a tennis dress. It hangs like a tennis dress. A tennis dress that used to be rust-colored, before somebody left it out in the sun all summer long."

In spite of myself, I burst out laughing. "What's she wearing on her feet?" I asked. "Sneakers?"

"No. She's wearing these transparent sandals." Tamara shrugged. "That girl is lucky she's got a killer body. If she didn't, they would have laughed her out of the place... wearing a faded old rag like that." She shook her head. "You see a woman dressed like that, at an event like this, you know something's shaken loose in the attic. She's not right in the head."

"She's sitting at my table," I told them. "On the chart, she's sitting right next to Max."

"Oh, hell no!" Tamara said. "Hell no! This will not stand! Let's go right now and change those name cards! Right this instant! We'll stick her and her... myrmidon at the Singles table. Kass and I will sit next to you guys! Come on! What do you say?"

"We can't do that," I responded lamely.

"Oh, girl, that woman will pull some kind of shit. You know she will."

I thought about Kitty's warning. I looked at Kass' and Tamara's faces. They were ready to go, ready to act. Kass nodded at me encouragingly.

"No," I told them. "Thanks, but I have to let it play out. I think the only way I'm ever going to be done with this thing is to go through it."

Tamara growled. "Famous last words." She put her hand on my shoulder. "Well, God bless you, Lorelei. You've got a pure and noble heart. Just remember, if you need backup, you know who to call."

Kass grinned. "All you gotta do is whistle."



Max came to find me. "We can go inside now," he said. "The dining room is open." I slipped my arm into his and we walked together.

I couldn't help but ask: "Hey, Max — do you know where Delphine ended up sitting?"

Max laughed. "She's in Purgatory," he said. "Nessa wants her to pay for her sins. Delphine is sitting at a table, alone, with my oldest aunts and uncles." When I responded with a puzzled expression, Max clarified: "It's Nessa's revenge. For the cake, and the white dress, and probably for other things as well. In this space of three tables, Delphine brings the average age down to 68. Nessa actually calculated it."


"And all the old ones sitting at Delphine's table are hard of hearing, so it doesn't give much range for Delphine's cracks and pranks."

"Yikes!" I reacted. "Clearly, if Nessa ever needs a job, she could help the Devil design torments in Hell. Custom torments. Bespoke retribution."

Max got a good laugh out of that, which I appreciated, but I told him, "Please help me to never, ever get on Nessa's bad side."

"How could you ever do that?" he scoffed, grinning.

We were the first to arrive at our table. "I'm surprised Claus wasn't here first," I said.

"He's over in the corner, making final adjustments to the music system," Max pointed out.

We found our seats, placed between Robin and Lana on our right and Amber and Oswald on our left. "Hmm," was Max's only comment when he saw the arrangement.

I didn't know what to do. I couldn't move the names around without it being obvious — and I didn't want to appear afraid of Amber. It smacked of desperation. I looked at the cards from left to right: Amber, Max, me, Robin, ...

"Max, switch seats with me," I told him. "Let's leave the names where they are, but I'll sit next to Amber."

He looked at me, considering. He made a noncommittal sound. I couldn't tell what he was thinking.

"Please, Max?"

"Okay," he agreed, after a pause. "It's probably a good idea."

"Great!" I exclaimed, and pulled his chair out.

"Wait," he cautioned. "Promise me one thing. Just ONE THING, okay?"


"It's important. Do NOT fight with that woman. Do not argue with her. If she says crazy BS that sets you off, do not respond. Just chill and let it blow on by. If she makes you blow your top, she wins. If she makes you angry, if she makes you fight with her, no matter how it ends, you lose. Do you understand?"

"Yes, I understand."

"Do you promise?"

"Yes, I promise," I told him. Then I plopped down into his chair, and he sat in mine. Immediately he stretched out his hand for a breadroll.

Robin and Lana came steaming up to the table. They looked a bit frazzled. "Thank God those photos are done!" Robin said.

"I never want to pose for another picture ever again in my life," Lana added.

"Do you think we can order drinks from the table here?" Robin asked. A waitress overheard, and asked what they'd like. After she left, Robin scanned the names, and saw that he'd end up sitting next to Max. He pulled his chair back, offering it to Lana. "Here you go," he said.

After she sat down, she picked up the name card. "This is your seat, Robin."

He sat in her chair and explained, "Those two swapped. We can swap. It doesn't matter."

Claus and Kitty rolled up next. Kitty scanned the cards and said, "Oh," pointing at our mismatched seating.

"I see," Claus said, taking it in. He pulled his chair back, offering it to Kitty. Then he sat in her seat.

"Seating cards are really for people who don't know each other," Claus opined. "Like the poor souls at the Leftover table."

"Is there a Leftover table?" Lana asked.

"It's called the Singles table," Claus explained. "Same thing. In any case, we're all friends here; we can mix and match as we please. We could even play musical chairs."

"But we won't," Kitty announced. "Will we, Claus?"

"No, of course not," he laughed. "It was just an observation."

"Ugh, there's that damn photographer again," Robin groaned. "I hope those drinks get here soon. I'm going to need one if he comes over here."

The drinks did arrive soon after, but the photographer continued to eye our table. As it turned out, he was waiting for people to sit down. As soon as a table was fully seated, he'd run over and snap their picture. Since we were among the last tables to be filled, the photographer kept passing by if he wasn't giving us impatient looks from across the room.

Robin shook his head. "I've got to say, Nessa is a handful. She is VERY demanding, but that photographer fought with her about every single picture. I don't know what the hell he was thinking."

Lana shook her in agreement.

Robin continued, "She would tell him exactly what she wanted — exactly, to a T."

Lana added, "And there was absolutely nothing wrong with anything Nessa wanted. Nothing. It was all very normal, standard wedding stuff. If he just did what she asked, we'd have finished in half the time."

"But this photographer," Robin went on, "had to have his own ideas. He'd insist that he compose the shots his way."

Lana: "Nessa would say, I want these people with this in the background, shot from over there. And the guy would act like she was an idiot, and say, why don't we try blah blah blah blah blah?"

"No wonder you were gone so long!" Claus exclaimed.

"So, what happened?" Kitty asked. "Did they take two of everything?"

"No," Robin sighed. "Nessa took the photographer aside and talked to him for a couple of minutes, and after that he was fine. He just did what she asked."

Lana laughed. "I think she threatened to sic Tag's groomsmen on him. At one point his face went white and he kept glancing at them."

"No," Robin shook his head. "Nessa wouldn't do that." Lana gave a knowing smirk.

Then, while Robin was looking down, Lana mouthed the words OH YES SHE WOULD.

Then Amber arrived.

Suddenly she was standing next to me, looking at her name card. She didn't say hello to anyone. She looked around the table, taking stock of the situation, as if she was in charge and we were her subordinates.

"You're all in the wrong places," she informed us. "I'm going to need every couple to swap seats." Then, pointing first at Max and me, then Robin and Lana, and finally at Claus and Kitty, she made a movement with her fingers, making her middle finger jump over her index finger, to show us how to switch places.

"Not gonna happen," Lana said, and Robin shook his head. "Just sit there," Robin said, gesturing to Oswald's place, "or sit there," he gestured to Amber's place.

Amber didn't react to this little rebellion. She tilted her head so she was looking at me, while I looked up at her.

"Do you want to sit next to me, Lorelei?" she asked in a cool tone. It didn't *sound* confrontational, but the intention was definitely there.

"Do we know each other?" I asked her. "Have we met?"

Her eyebrows went up oh-so-slightly, almost imperceptibly. Max put his hand on my thigh to remind me of my promise. Do not fight with that woman. His gesture wasn't lost on Amber.

"Oh, you're funny," she said. "I didn't know that. Like Carrot Top in a dress. Desperate for a laugh." She took a breath and smiled. "Too bad! Men don't like girls who are funny."

"Then they must love you," I retorted. Max squeezed my thigh. Don't fight with her.

Amber smiled. "Yes, you're right. They do. They do. But it's really the love of one man that we want, isn't it? No woman wants universal adulation. She wants one man to love. To have and to hold. One man to build a home for."

"Excuse me," the photographer interrupted. "Would you mind sitting down, miss? And not there—" he pointed to the seat next to me "—but there." he pointed to the seat next to Claus. In a condescending tone he added, "It's boy-girl, boy-girl. Pretty standard."

"Everyone is in the wrong seat," she told him. "This is my seat. The rest of them need to switch." She made a stirring motion with her hand around the table; a gesture meant to show that three swaps were needed.

"Look, miss," he said, and clearly his patience was wearing thin. His pride had taken a beating at the hands of Nessa, and he was not about to lose this minor skirmish. "I have a lot of photographs to take, and the more time I spend on this table, the less time I have to spend taking pictures of the bride. I can tell you, this bride is not going to care whether you are sitting on the left or the right of your date. She's going to want pictures of herself, smiling and looking beautiful, walking in here on her brand-new husband's arm. So would you please sit down? Right there?" Again he pointed to the seat next to Claus. Amber didn't move.

"Okay," the photographer said, and flustered, played his last cards. "I'm sure that most of the time, in most places — any place other than right here and right now — you're used to being in charge and telling people what to do. But this is a wedding, and here, the bride is the boss, and this bride... well, she is the scariest boss I have ever had."

Robin chuckled. "I believe that!"

"If your issue with the chairs is so overwhelmingly important, I will go find that scary little bride and tell her that she's going to have to wait to make her grand entrance because *you* are holding up the table pictures. Would you like me to do that? I'll just go and talk to her ri—"

Amber didn't wait for him to finish. This wasn't the hill she wanted to die on. With an ill-tempered grimace, she sat next to Claus, and Oswald sat next to me.

"Beautiful!" the photographer exclaimed. He snapped three shots and moved quickly on.

I leaned into Max, resting my shoulder against his chest, and whispered, "My God, Max — it just hit me: this wedding reception has a really high concentration of crazy, scary women! It's almost like a contest to see who's the scariest of them all!"

He looked at me with a facial expression I couldn't decipher. As if he was wary or incredulous; I couldn't decide which.

"Max, what's wrong?" I asked.

"Uh, this contest you're describing," he whispered, "You're not planning on making a late entry, are you?"

My eyes, my mouth gaped in astonishment. "Max! What a thing to say!" I whispered, shocked. "How can you say— how can you even think a thing like that?"

He gave my thigh a gentle squeeze and leaned his head in, putting his mouth close to my ear. I felt his warm, moist breath on my ear and neck as he whispered, "Don't fight with Amber. Please. I'm begging you. Don't play her game. She wants to get a rise out of you. Please?"

As he pulled away, straightening up, I saw Amber's smirk of superiority.

"Everything okay, Lorelei?" she asked in a sweet, polite tone. "Everthing copacetic?"

I hate that goddamn word, copacetic. It really bugs me when people say it. It sounds like mouthwash. I knew it would be too much to imagine that she had somehow discovered that the word irked me, but I wondered anyway.

Max must have read my mind, because he gave my thigh another gentle squeeze.

I simply nodded in reply, not looking at Amber.

"Awww," Amber cooed. "Lorelei, you poor little thing! Your insecurity is showing. You're beginning to realize, aren't you, that you're out of your depth? Max just needed a date for the wedding, and that's what you are: a placeholder, a temp — at best, you're a rebound; not destined for the long haul."

I couldn't help it. I (stupidly) shot back, "A placeholder for what?"

She pulled back, as if surprised by my question. "A placeholder for me," she replied, "Isn't it obvious? Max and I have a shared destiny. You're just an also-ran."

"Hey!" Claus protested, albeit feebly.

But who came to my defense? Not Max or Robin, or any of the women at the table. It was Oswald who spoke up.

"Amber, there's no call to talk like that. This is a wedding, and you're being deliberately rude."

"And you," she snapped, eyes afire, "Are not supposed to talk!"

"I never agreed to any such thing," he contested, but not hotly. Oswald kept his cool.

Amber huffed and puffed, furious at being contradicted.

I took another look at her dress. Honestly, it wasn't bad. She wasn't the best dressed at the table — even Lara beat her there — but it did show off her body pretty explicitly. And — as even Tamara had to admit — Amber's body was killer. Dressed as she was, there was no mystery as to what she looked like naked; you had only to mentally subtract the color of her dress.

But, yeah, if you were catty (and I was feeling pretty catty!), you could call it a tennis dress.

And I was pretty sure I would, before the evening ended.

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