Plus-One With A Vengeance : 25 / 29

Plus-One With A Vengeance : 25 / 29

[ An Altered Fates Story ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux


"Tough guys don't dance."
— Norman Mailer


A half-smile played on Claus' lips. He leaned forward, his eyes set on Oswald, our mysterious guest. He half-opened his mouth, ready to speak. I figured he was about to introduce himself to Oswald, but his attention broke and his intention derailed by a sudden change in the music. Claus' head jerked to attention.

The song began with a gentle, rhythmic plink-plink-plink plink-plink-plink over and over, a piano chord that soon was giving the backbeat to a soft, twangy guitar. "Max, what is this?" I asked. "How did you put this on? Where's your remote control?"

"I'm not in command of the music," he confessed. "I only compiled the playlist. The best man is the real MC. He has the app on his phone: he can pause, go forward and back, skip songs... whatever he likes."

Amber fell oddly silent during Claus' explanation. She appeared to be totally focused on his words, and when Claus finished, Amber's expression grew thoughtful. I didn't know what to make of it. But anyway, back to my question...

"So, Claus, what song is this?" I repeated. "It sounds so Sixties, with that twangy guitar."

"You're right," he replied. "It's the Ventures, Theme From A Summer Place."

"I'm surprised that Nessa would pick a song like this. She seems such a modern girl, I wouldn't guess she liked this kind of music."

Amber shot me a dirty look, apropos of what? I didn't know.

"My mother must have slipped this in there," Robin explained. "It's one of her favorite songs."

Claus added, "Yes, it was her. She thought it would be a nice interlude; she figured it would introduce a little calm before the bride comes in."

So, the bride was about to make her appearance. I raised my head and looked around the room. It wasn't clear which door Nessa would enter by. She had several magnificent frames to appear in. Just so you understand the scene, we the guests were seated at tables set in an enormous ballroom. The floor was only slightly smaller than a football field, and the ceiling so high that even a quarterback or a pitcher with a strong arm would have trouble hitting the ceiling — could it be thirty feet high? Higher? The head table was long and straight and stood at the foot of a fabulous divided staircase. In front of it, in the midst of all our tables, a large area had been left open to make room for dancing. Counting the possible entrances: there were two doors, each one massively tall and wide, three floor-to-ceiling windows on the scale of Versailles, and a smaller door that led to the dining room; a room that was smaller than the ballroom, but still large enough to accommodate all of us. The wedding cake was tucked away in a corner of that room.

If I were Nessa, I'd want to come down one side of the divided staircase while Tag descended the other. Then, a dramatic kiss on the landing, finishing the last few steps hand in hand. It seemed the obvious choice, but try as I might, I didn't see any signs of life at the top of the stairs.

Quite abruptly, Amber sat up straight in her chair at full attention. She seemed to be studying the best man — one of Tag's tall, muscular friends — as he strode confidently, dramatically to the center of the room, accompanied by the maid of honor. In one hand the best man held a microphone; in the other, a cell phone — the phone that controlled the music. With practiced coordination, he stopped the music, gave a three-second pause for the talk to die down, and then called for everyone's attention. He pointed out that the waitstaff were charging everyone's glass with champagne. He cautioned us to "not drink it yet! Don't drink it right away! We're going to toast the bride and groom. So just hold your horses! It won't be long." He swept his eyes over the room until he got the nod from one of the staff: everything was ready. Everyone had a glass of bubbly.

"And now, ladies and gentlemen, raise your glasses! I present to you for the first time ever, in any time or place, Mr and Mrs Tag Curran!"

Heads swiveled right and left -- which door would they choose? In the end, the pair suddenly, almost shyly, entered through the least obvious, least ostentatious choice: the door that led to the dining room. Perhaps they were admiring the wedding cake before they made their grand entrance?

In any case, they were greeted by applause, cheers, and more applause. Then the best man led us in a toast to the newly-minted couple.

"Robin," I asked, "Is his name actually Tag? Isn't that just a nickname?"

Robin shrugged and shook his head. "I've never heard him called anything else. On every document I've seen, that's his only name. He doesn't even have a middle name, as far as I know."

Amber shot me another look. This one was more intense than the last. She stepped up the intensity: she seemed appalled by me. What is your problem? I muttered to myself.

"And now," the best man informed us in a softer tone, "The happy couple will dance for the first time as man and wife to a song they've chosen as the theme of their wedding." The best man touched his phone once again. He and the maid of honor stepped back, leaving the floor to Nessa and Tag, who faced each other, smiled, and took each other in their arms, ready to dance. Softly at first, then growing gradually louder, the music began.

I recognized it almost instantly, but wasn't 100% sure. "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'?" I asked. "That's what this is, isn't it? That's the theme of their wedding?" I swear, I was only asking a question. No judgment intended or expressed.

Amber scoffed loudly. "You don't like anything that anyone does, do you? Nothing is good enough for you, Miss High-and-Mighty. Do you think you know better than everyone? That you're some kind of princess, looking down your royal nose at everyone? I have news for you, girlie, you're not."

"No, of course — I don't think anything like that. I'm just surprised. The song is about a failed relationship, so it just... I don't know..."

"That's right: you don't know. You don't know anything about romance, Lorelei. This song positively drips with romance. Don't you know that Tom Cruise sang this song to Katie Holmes at their wedding?"

"Yeah," I shot back. "Yeah, I did know that. And look how well that turned out!" I regretted it the moment I said it, and so did Max: I felt him gasp quietly, and he gave my thigh a prolonged squeeze.

Amber gestured with her chin toward Max's arm. "He's tugging on your leash, Lorelei. He wants to bring you to heel." She chuckled to herself. "I wonder if he knew how out of control you are when he invited you here. Max, did you know that your date would nothing but criticize? What a shame."

I began a mild protest: "I wasn't... criticizing," but Max whispered, "Let it go," and I did, though I nearly choked on the things I wanted to say to Amber.

The next dance was for Nessa and her father. They danced to Love Is Blue, another Sixties hit.

"Mom chose this one, too," Robin murmured.

"Any objection, your majesty?" Amber asked me in a lofty tone. I shook my head, although honestly, it did strike me as an another odd choice.

Next, Tag danced with his mother, then Tag and Nessa once again danced together, joined by his parents and her parents.

Now that the ceremonial dances were done, and a temporary cease-fire had been called between Amber and me, Claus turned his attention back to Oswald. "Oswald," he called out in a jovial, welcoming tone, "we have you at a disadvantage here. Everyone at this table knows everyone else except for you. So let's all go round the table, say hello to our new friend, and tell him our names." Claus grinned. "You see, until now, for us, you've been a man of mystery!"

"Oh, hardly!" Oswald protested with a laugh.

Claus and Kitty introduced themselves, then Lana and Robin, and finally Max and me. Max leaned forward, wagging his finger at Oswald. "I'm sure I've seen you before—"

Amber interrupted by abruptly standing and declaring that she "hadn't come for all this senseless chitter-chatter." She frowned and shook her head. "It's just mind activity!" She made a cutting motion with her hand, as if to say she wanted none of that.

And then she was gone.

Once she was safely out of earshot, Robin asked, "What the hell does that mean? What's wrong with mind activity? Most of us call it thinking, don't we? She makes it sound like it's a bad thing."

"I've heard her say that a lot," Max said. "But it doesn't mean a thing to me."

"Same here," Claus and Kitty echoed.

Oswald cleared his throat and told us, "I'm pretty sure I know what she means. Like the rest of you, I've heard her say it endlessly, and once I happened to catch her when she was in a talkative mood, so I asked her what she meant by mind activity. She didn't say where she got this idea, but Amber believes that each of us has in our heads something like a radio station. This radio is on all the time. Sometimes it's talk radio. Sometimes it's music. Often it's the same song, played over and over. When Amber talks dismissively about mind activity she means that we've just opened our mouths and let that inner radio play. It's not... intentional. It doesn't serve any purpose — according to her. It's our brain on automatic. Old tapes, repetitions of things we've heard. That's what she means."

"You're an excellent explainer," Claus complimented him.

"Another thing I've often wondered," Lana threw in. "Was Amber ever in a cult? Is she in one now? I kind of think she has the earmarks."

"Ah," Oswald said, taking off his glasses for a moment to polish them. He looked down as he did so. "I wouldn't know. And honestly, as her friend, if she ever was in such a group and I knew it was so, I wouldn't say."

There was a moment of silence. I think we were all impressed by Oswald's loyalty and discretion.

Kitty looked surprised. Claus commented laconically, "That would explain a lot."

Max shook his head, and returned to the question Amber had interrupted by leaving the table. "Oswald, I'm sure I've seen you before. You stuck your head into the family dinner yesterday, didn't you?"

"Yes," he admitted. "Amber wanted to get in, so I asked on her behalf, but of course it was for family only."

"Right," Max acknowledged, "but I've seen you somewhere before that."

A big grin broke out on Oswald's face. "Yes, yes, I wasn't going to say — but you have an excellent memory! I was at the Celestial Lamb on Valentine's Day."

I opened my mouth in a big Ohhh! getting it at once. So did Max. He asked, "You were Amber's date?"

Oswald nodded and smiled. "It was quiet an eventful night."

"I'll say!" Max agreed.

Now it was Claus' turn to wag his finger at Oswald. "Oswald, you remind me of someone — of a character in literature. Have you read The Great Gatsby?"

"Oh, I see what's coming," Oswald chuckled. "Yes, I have. Several times."

Claus was pleased with that response. "You put me in mind of the owl-eyed man — do you remember that character?"

"Yes, I do, but Fitzgerald called him the man with the owl-eyed glasses."

Claus, astonished by Oswald's ready response, for once fell silent.

He was revived, though, by the very next song — Chuck Berry's You Never Can Tell (C'est La Vie). Jumping to his feet, he cried, "Come on, Lorelei, dance with me — this is our song!"

Kitty shot him a side-eyed glance and put her hand on his arm. "Down, boy," she cautioned. "If you're dancing with anyone tonight, you're dancing with me."

"Your wish is my command, liebling," he told her, and the two scurried off to the dance floor.

Delphine suddenly appeared, standing behind Amber's empty chair. "Oh my God! Maxie Max Max Max! You have to dance with me! You must! My God! I'm dying! I'm stuck at the Hell table with all the oldies, AND THEY AREN'T EVEN BREATHING! I'm not sure if they're alive or dead!"

"I don't dance, Delphine," Max told her in a quiet, serious tone.

"Oh come on!" she whined. "Just one dance! Just a part of a dance — this one already started, see? Lorelei can lend you out for just one song, can't you, Lore?"

Max shook his head.

"I need to move, so I can feel young and alive again!" she cried. (Such an actress! She seemed genuinely desperate!)

"I'll dance with you, Delphine," Oswald told her.

She turned head and give him a doubtful look. "Can you actually dance?"

"Do you want to discuss it or do you want to move and feel young and alive again?" He challenged her. Without waiting for an answer, Oswald was on his feet and led her away by the hand.

"You know," Robin observed, "Just looking at him, you'd never guess he was such a smooth operator."

"Holy crap!" Lana exclaimed. She'd been watching the pair over her shoulder. "That Oswald sure can cut a rug!"

In fact, Oswald really had moves. He and Delphine were stamping and spinning. He tossed her onto his hip. He tossed her on his other hip. He spun her. He flipped her. He had the whole jitterbug repertoire down pat. The other dancers spread out to make room. Delphine smiled and laughed.

"Max, will you dance with me?" I asked, excited by their performance.

"Didn't you hear what I told Delphine? I don't dance."

"You don't? You mean you won't dance."

He shrugged. "Won't, don't, can't, shan't — whatever."

"But Max, nobody knows how to dance. We all just get out there, jump, wave our ams, and shuffle around."

He shook his head.

The song ended, and a beaming Delphine returned to our table. "Oh Maxie Max Max Max!" she crowed, pummeling his shoulders playfully with her fists. "Have I got a secret to tell you!"

"If it's secret, you shouldn't share it with me, because then it won't be a secret any more," he told her.

"Wow, why are you such a wet blanket?" she asked. "Listen, you will love this one. I guarantee it."

"No, I won't. Women love secrets. I'm a man, so I don't care."

Delphine, taken aback, laughed in disbelief.

"Where is Oswald?" I asked.

Delphine waved her hand dismissively. "He went to look for that idiot Amber." After a quick glance around, she leaned in. "Listen to me, Max! Do you want to know who Oswald is? Do you want to know why he's Amber's plus one?"

Robin and Lana perked up. "*I* want to know!" Lana declared.

"So do I!" I added.

Then it hit me — I understood why Delphine was so excited to tell it.

"He's Amber's cousin!" I guessed.

Delphine opened her mouth wide in a silent howl of laughter. She touched the tip of her nose with her left index finger and pointed at me with her right. "Ding! Ding! Ding!" she cried. "We have a winner! You got it in one!"

"What an irony," Lana observed.

Max just shrugged.

"Oh, my God!" Delphine exclaimed. "What do we have to do to raise a smile on poor old Maxie Max's sad old face?" She pouted, and in a baby-talk voice said, "Oh, come on, Maxie Max Max Max, come on! Won't you gib a widdle smile for us? A widdle widdle smile? A widdly liddly smiley wile?"

Max's stern exterior broke, and after a chuckle, he gave us all a nice smile.

"It's a good thing I'm here to do the heavy lifting," Delphine quipped.

Claus and Kitty returned to the table, followed soon after by Oswald.

"Oh, Oswald!" Delphine called. "You didn't find Amber? No? Maybe a little girl threw a bucket of water on her, and she melted away."

Oswald didn't rise to the bait. "She's trying to get the best man to play some song."

"Really?" Claus interjected. "That's not going to work. If I knew that's what she intended, I would have told her."

"It wouldn't have mattered," Oswald told him. "She would have tried anyway."

Robin twisted in his seat until he could see the head table. "Oh, yeah — there she is, talking to the best man."

Amber was standing directly behind the bride and groom, rattling nonstop to the best man. Nessa gave a few impatient looks behind her. The photographer came near, and it was clear from Nessa's irritated gestures that she didn't want him to waste shots with Amber in the background. He managed to find a creative angle that played up Nessa's profile and left Amber completely out of the shot.

Oblivious to the complications and bridal distress she was creating, Amber did her best to charm the best man. She smiled, she gestured, she posed, she touched his arm, his chest... He stood there, not talking, just... listening?

"He's not listening at all," Lana observed. "He's just looking at her breasts. He's not making the least effort to be subtle. He'll let her talk all day as long he can look down her dress. He probably thinks he's going to get lucky."

I watched Amber for a moment, then had a thought.

"Hey, Max, did you and Amber have a song?"

"A song?"

"Yes, you know: couples — I guess sometimes — they have a song. The first song they danced to? The song that was playing when they first met?"

"Nope," he replied.

"Are you sure?"

He shook his head. "Do you and I have a song?" he asked.

"Uh, no, I guess not. But — does *Amber* think that you two have a song?"

"Who knows? Probably. I wouldn't know."

"Max, why are you so irritable?"

He sighed. "Sorry, I didn't realize that it showed."


"Hey." He took me in his arms and he hugged me, rocking me gently. Then he rested his hands on my shoulders and touched my forehead with his own. He spoke so quietly only I could hear. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to take it out on you. But... there's so much... there's way too much female craziness all in one place all at one time. It's overwhelming."

I frowned, not getting it.

"Look, there's my mother, who is nuts. There's my Aunt Viv, who is, uh—" he scratched the back of his head "—something unpredictable straight out of Harry Potter. There's Amber, who is an entire circus — animals included — in herself. There's Delphine. There's Nessa. It's like there are hand grenades rolling everywhere, ready to pop their pins and explode if you happen to touch one. You have to watch your every step."

He stopped for a moment and looked me in the eyes before continuing. "And then, there's you, too, Lorelei. I don't know how on earth you managed to adapt so quickly to all this chaos and these secret wars. It seems for you, it's all natural, which is what I don't get. You see all this insanity as part of the girl-world you women live in — the world you live in now. For me, this is like a girl-power convention that's gone off the rails. I keep wondering whether someone will call in the National Guard."

"Oh, Max," I murmured in what I hoped was a comforting voice.

Just then, the maid of honor walked up to our table and approached Robin. She clutched her cell phone in her hand. "Robin," she told him, "Nessa doesn't want you to give your speech today."

"Okay," he agreed in a chirpy voice. Then, realizing he sounded too happy at her news, he added, "Tell Nessa that I'm disappointed, because I worked SO hard on that speech, but I'll do whatever it takes to make her happy."

The maid of honor's face lit up. She asked if she could say "the whole disappointed thing" again on camera. "Sure," he said.

She fiddled with her phone for a moment, then stepped closer to him. "I'll give you the line, and then you just say what you just said," she told him, "but remember to really sell it, okay? Don't overdo it, but be sincere."

"Got it," he said, and added with an irony that blew right by her, "I can do sincere."

She pressed her head next to his, holding the phone at selfie distance. "I'm here with Robin, the brother of the bride, and I have to give him some bad news!" she exclaimed with a pout. "Nessa doesn't want him to give his after-dinner speech. She doesn't think there'll be enough time."

"I have to say I'm disappointed," Robin recited. "I really put my heart into that piece. But... if NOT giving that speech is what it takes to make my little sister happy on her wedding day..." he nodded significantly "... then I won't give the speech."

"There you have it!" the little maid of honor exclaimed, and stopped the video. "That was perfect!" she told him.

"Happy to help," he told her, stifling a smile.

After the girl was gone, Robin told us, "That girl and my sister are doing this thing of trying to mutually boost their online presence. They want to be influencers, you know?" He shrugged. "I'm getting used to being their straight man. Most of the time, it's cute."

Now that the video was complete and the maid of honor gone, servers rushed in to serve our dinners. I noticed that Delphine was sitting next to Oswald, in Amber's place.

"What's up with Amber?" I asked, turning to look.

"Oh, she's in trouble," Delphine announced. "Nessa's mother and my mother are clearing her away from the head table. Those two are terrible when they gang up on somebody. Watch — they keep pushing her back, first an inch, then another inch... I don't think Amber's even aware of it. It's a shove on the installment plan." In fact, they'd already moved Amber two full yards away from Nessa, who was smiling once again.

My attention was so strongly drawn to Amber's spectacle, that I very nearly missed Delphine's next antic. Her hands were poised over Amber's knife and fork. She looked around the table, smiled, and said, "It's so nice of Amber to let me do this. I couldn't bear to eat at the old-age table."

"Delphine!" I exclaimed, genuinely shocked.

"No, Delphine, that is definitely uncool," Robin weighed in.

Delphine's hands were still in the air, hovering over Amber's cutlery. With a tone of utter distress and pleading, she whined, "But it's awful over there! It's like Mar-a-Lago — everyone's a thousand years old!"

A snorted laugh almost escaped from Max, but he stifled it.

Robin leaned in. "It's your penance, Delphine. You made that girl believe that you were going to jump out of her wedding cake."

Delphine hesitated, pulled back her hands a millimeter or two, then Robin added, "... in a bikini."

Delphine gave a tiny whining noise. Robin pressed on, "You made her think that Tag asked you to do it."

Delphine looked up, surprised. "Did she really believe it?"

Robin nodded. "She asked him if he really did ask you." He paused for effect. "She was really upset."

"Oh," Delphine acknowledged in a small voice. "I didn't mean— I just—" Her mouth twisted to the right in rueful surrender. "Okay," she murmured, and like a chastened child got up and walked away, her head down.

"I almost feel bad for her," I said.

Robin scoffed and shook his head. "With her, everything's an act."

Kitty said, "Wow, Robin! I wish my brother stood up for me the way you stood up for Nessa there."

"Yeah," I added. "I wish I had a brother like you."

"But, Lorelei," Kitty pointed out, "You have your cousin Elliot. Isn't he like a brother to you?"

"Oh, yes, I guess he is," I agreed, weakly.

"When is he coming back?" Claus queried.

"Ah, yeah. Wednesday."

"Wednesday?" Kitty repeated. "You mean this Wednesday?"

"Yes, Elliot and his dad will be in town. They're arriving Wednesday."

I could see that Kitty wanted more details, but Amber chose that moment to return. Looking at the disordered angle her chair was left in, she groused, "Somebody's been sitting in my chair." Max nearly spit his water — barely managing not to — then broke into convulsive laughter — he couldn't stop.

"What is so funny?" Amber asked, but not in an angry way. Her mood was changed, strange. Perhaps her encounter with the two mothers caused her to dial down her aggression. She seemed puzzled, uncertain. A very un-Amber look.

"I get it," Robin, shaking his head, showed a slight grin. "It's The Three Bears."

"What?" Amber asked, still on her feet, straightening her chair.

"You know, Momma Bear, Poppa Bear, Baby Bear? Somebody's been sitting in my chair." Robin explained. Max had quieted, and was using his napkin to dry his eyes and nose.

"Oh," Amber acknowledged, getting it, but not laughing. Then, more to herself than to us, she muttered, "Why is everything going the wrong way? Why is everyone being so difficult?"

Oswald quietly answered, "Perhaps it's a sign."

She looked down at him, her jaw working, and for the first time, I almost felt sorry for her. I expected fury from her. I expected lava-intensity anger. I expected her to melt Oswald down to scrap and have someone cart off his remains. Instead, she had an almost vulnerable expression. It was a look that said if one more thing goes sideways, I'm going to break down and cry.

But... she didn't cry. The vulnerable expression was short-lived. It was there, then it was gone, replaced by the usual haughty, condescending Amber face. She sat down, surveyed her dinner, and took a sip of wine.

The food was excellent. It was consumed mostly in silence, punctuated at intervals by guests tapping their glasses with a spoon, so the bride and groom would kiss.

I don't know how many times that ding-ding-ding rang out before it began to seem tiresome, at least to me. Of course I didn't complain, it would have been rude, to say nothing of the ammunition I'd be giving Amber to use against me. However, Tag, the groom, seemed sensitive to it — he led Nessa out to the middle of the floor, took her in his arms, and swept her off her feet. He carried her down, held her horizontal, a foot above the ground. Her mouth opened in astonished delight and he kissed her. Both of them closed their eyes and melted into each other. It was a long, passionate kiss. The room filled with hoots, cheers, and applause — that only increased, the longer they stayed there, lips locked. Nessa's hair spread like a halo around her head, and her skirt had the effect of a three-dimensional snow angel. Tag held her, effortlessly, while cameras flashed and clicked. The photographer, in a wild moment, slid in on his knees and caught a low, dramatic angle.

At last the happy couple stood to their feet. Nessa, blushing, breast heaving as she tried to catch her breath, touched her hair, her dress, here and there, as if it were possible for anything in her look to be even slightly out of place. Tag held her with one hand, and raised the other high, calling for our attention and silence. He then made a pretty little speech about having many, many kisses to give his lovely wife, and so on and so forth, and yet, could we consume the rest of our meal without the calls for a kiss? There was much to follow, he reminded us all. The cutting of the cake, the bouquet, the garter...

"That was cleverly done," Robin commented approvingly.

"That was pretty damn hot!" Claus exclaimed. "And did you see the slide from that photographer! I hope someone got a picture!"

The waitstaff began to circulate, some of them collecting plates, knives, forks, while a second group laid out dessert forks and coffee spoons.Some guests took the opportunity to visit.

From the corner of my eye I perceived Amber stiffen. She sat up a little straighter (thought that hardly seemed possible) and she touched Oswald's arm. He nodded in acknowledgment.

She was reacting to the approach of Tamara and Kass. Kass, if you recall, had stunned Amber with an uppercut to the stomach on Valentine's Day. Tamara arrived with a smirk on her face, but Kass studiously avoided reacting in any way to Amber's presence. Introductions were made.

Tamara commented, "This looks like a lovely table. Everybody friends, every one of you known to the others. And see? None of you feel the need to rise up and circulate. You're perfectly happy with your company."

"Does that mean that you are not?" Claus asked.

"In the first place," Kass replied, "and I don't want to complain, but they stuck us at the Singles table. We're a couple!" Tamara smiled as she gave Kass a quick sideways squeeze. It clearly wasn't an issue for her, and Kass let it drop.

"No, the real problem is a clown named Edison," Tamara told us. "He started off with inappropriate remarks to every woman at the table, and when he realized that Kass and I are lesbians, his rudeness knew no bounds." She shook her head in disapproval.

"Edison went to school with most of us." Max said. "I didn't realize he was such a creep."

"Well of course you didn't know," Tamara answered. "He wasn't trying to get into your pants."

"I remember Edison," Claus commented. "He was usually polite, but he was never kind."

"Edison is a pig," Kitty said. "Period. Exclamation point."

Amber then declared, "No one cares about this Emerson creep. We're lowering ourselves by talking about him."

"Edison," Robin corrected.

"Whatever," Amber replied.

I didn't add my own unpleasant experience with Edison, back at the mall, where he openly stared up my skirt, then came to talk to me about it. I didn't see any point in mentioning it.

Delphine wandered up and joined the party. We all engaged in what Amber would call mind activity. While we chattered, the wedding cake was cut and pieces distributed. A wave of waitstaff poured coffee and tea.

Our conversation was very entertaining, and would have continued, were we not interrupted by the best man, who stood in the middle of the dance floor. Next to him stood Nessa, who smiled a devious, devilish smile. She held her bouquet.

"Oh, no," I groaned softly. Delphine was the only one who heard me. She rolled her eyes in solidarity.

"I'd like to ask all the single women to come down here," the best man intoned. "Come on down, don't be shy! It's time for the bouquet toss."

Amber stood up and brushed off the front of her dress.

"Oh, you know, I was wondering..." Tamara said, her eyes on Amber's dress, but speaking to no one in particular "... did anyone see a tennis court on the grounds here? You'd think in the midst of this opulence, there'd be a tennis court."

"I'm going to give a hard pass to the coin toss," Delphine declared.

"Me, too," I agreed.

"I'm married," Kitty said, taking Claus's arm. "Me, too," Lana agreed, taking Robin's.

"I am not available," Kass announced, hugging Tamara's arm.

Once six or seven girls assembled on the dance floor, doe-like blondes with long, straight hair, Amber made her way into their midst. The girls flexed their arms, elbowing, jostling for position.

We would have missed out on the experience entirely — exactly as we intended — if it weren't for the meddlesome mothers in attendance. Delphine's mother, Nessa's mother, and Max's mother Melissa came and rousted us, shooing us like chickens onto the floor. Delphine and I made our way to the very back, with some distance between us and the last row of hopeful bouquet-catchers.

"Hey, girl," Delphine called to me, gesturing with her chin toward Nessa. "Your future mother-in-law is trying to put her thumb on the scale."

In fact, there was Melissa, bright-eyed, smiling, talking to Nessa earnestly, full of enthusiasm. She didn't point or gesture, but Nessa turned her head and looked me right in the eye.

"Oh, crap!" I exclaimed. "I'm a target! She's locked on to me!"

Nessa settled herself in her stance and gave two short wind-up arcs with her arm, sensing the weight, judging the air resistance. One-handed, she flipped the bouquet over, bringing a flatter, more even surface to the top. She rocked her head and rolled her shoulders, loosening up.

"Don't worry," Delphine told me, with a conspiratorial grin. "Nessa's the pitcher on her baseball team, so she's got a great arm and a great aim, but..." at that point Nessa let the bouquet go, and it rose in a neat arc. If it were a normal ceiling, if it weren't so incredibly high, the flowers would have hit mid-flight and fallen to a girl in the middle of the crowd. Instead, there was nothing to impede that perfect curve. I looked up, astonished. It was clear where the arc landed. Fatalistically, I watch the missile descend, almost seeing the trace of the neat curve beginning at Nessa's hand and ending with my face. I heard the laments of the girls who'd struggled so manfully to stake a place in the front lines, crying out in disappointment as they realized that the shot came off well above their heads. I could have easily stepped out of the way. Maybe I could have yanked the girl in front of me backward, so the arc could end with her rather than me. Unfortunately, my body didn't respond. I felt unable to move. And then—

Delphine shot into the air, her hip striking my shoulder, shoving me out of the way. Did she want the bouquet?

But no— as the bouquet came down, Delphine gave it a slight, delicate touch with her fingertips, the smallest possible push, and the bouquet was deflected, landing squarely in the arms of an anxious debutant, who clutched it eagerly and squealed like a little girl, spilling over with unrepressed delight.

"Yeah," Delphine continued, grinning a mad grin. "I was saying, Nessa's the pitcher on her baseball team, but I'm the goalkeeper on my soccer team. It's hard to get 'em past me."

"Excellent!" I softly cried, and gave her a hug. While we stood there laughing, Melissa came up, tight-lipped, disapproving.

"I saw you girls, I saw you." She did that thing where she pointed with two fingers at her own eyes, then pointed those fingers at us. "We all know who was meant to catch that bouquet, and that's what counts."

"I'm sorry, Aunt Melissa," Delphine told her, feigning the very picture of disappointment. "I tried to grab it... I tried, I really tried, but you saw what happened."

The corner of Melissa's lip twitched. She wanted to laugh, I could see it. At last she smiled and said, "I saw you bat that thing away, Delphine! I know your moves! Your mother's dragged me to all your soccer games."

"I guess instinct just took over," Delphine replied.

Melissa shook her head, smiling, amused, not really disappointed. She touched my arm. "At least you were there for it," she said, and walked away.

"Whoa!" Delphine exclaimed after Melissa was out of earshot. "Aunt Melissa's got it bad for you! She's got it real bad! You better watch out, Lorelei. I bet she's already scouting venues for next year for you and Max."

"Yeah," I said. "She wants those grandbabies."

"Yikes!" Delphine cried, and clutched her stomach. "Did you tell her that I cursed you, and that all your babies will be ugly as sin?"

"No, Delphine, somehow I didn't mention that."

She elbowed and poked me until at last I laughed, and then we made our way back to the Friends table.

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