MADE OF HONOR - MARILYNN GRIFFITH
I'm turning into a Chia pet.
Little children are starting to toss dandelions when they see me. The brides of Leverhill, Illinois have taught the kiddies well. One little darling from church, a cutie with zigzag parts and snaggle teeth, wants to grow up and take my job-big flower girl. The little girl nailed it, especially about the big part, but we're not going there. Not today, with my formerly fat best friend looking like Twiggy goes bridal, while I gasp for breath in a dress fit for a train wreck. My only consolation is not having to worry about Tracey aiming a floral missile (known to some as a bouquet) at my head later on.
She wouldn't do me like that, would she? Nah. At least that's what I tell myself, but then I thought this wedding wouldn't happen either. Still, this bride is one of my closest friends and my roommate for the past three years. Tracey Cox, well, Tracey Blackman now, has picked enough baby's breath out of my teeth to know better.
Just in case though, a pint of Chunky Monkey and a pedicure appointment await me after this reception. Who knows? Tracey just might snap and throw long. Marriage does things to people. One day they're normal and the next they're inviting total strangers to wear ugly dresses in their weddings and then after the ceremony, said brides proceed to cut off all communication with members of the wedding party except for goofy Christmas photos of the newlyweds cradling an ugly dog, signed "from all of us." And don't let them actually get pregnant. Have you ever seen an entire album of birth photos? Not cute.
Do I sound bitter?
I'm not. I have friends. Sistahs even. And trying to keep up with them, keep my job and stay right with God occupies most of my time. Like now. I need to find Rochelle, my other best friend (yes, I have two) and founder of the Sassy Sistahood email list. If I don't catch up to her soon, she might make a fool of herself.
Though my girlfriend is a paragon of virtue most days, weddings turn Rochelle into a gelatinous pool of desperation. Remember the birth photo album I mentioned? It's worse. Okay, so nothing's worse than that, but it's bad. Even the sight of me, voluptuous black woman tangled in tulips after a bouquet toss, is easier on the eyes.
Using my emergency x-ray vision (activated by squinting so hard I almost fused my contacts to my eyeballs) I glimpsed a pink satin horror similar to my own, but a set of three-inch shoulder pads blocked my view. Who would wear a power suit to a wedding-my boss. There she was, looking just as angry as when I'd left her at work last night. I ducked before she saw me, recovering from my shock that she'd even shown up. The bride, who left our office to start her own graphic design firm six months ago, insisted on inviting Naomi, her-former and my-current employer and Renee, my assistant, who was probably somewhere taking pictures of me for blackmail. She'd be giggling in my ear about this dress for the next month. At least.
My future torture aside, I was proud of Naomi for actually leaving the office (I think she secretly lives there). For her to show up at her own funeral would be the height of etiquette. Some people just don't grasp interaction, you know? And having "interacted" with Naomi daily for the past six years, I could do without her today. Besides, I needed to find Sassy Sistah #1 before she melted down and kissed somebody.
With that thought as fuel, I forced my Baker dyeables (those satin shoes that can be dyed to match your gown? I know. Prom flashbacks.) across the sprinkle of autumn leaves on the ground. Rochelle tiptoed up beside me, fanning her face, despite the growing chill. Man Mania was in full swing.
"Did you see Ryan's brother?" She said breathlessly. "From the looks of things, Tracey should have picked him."
From the reality of things. Anyone seemed a better choice. I mentally squashed the nagging doubt about my friend's hour-old marriage. Thoughts like that were getting me nowhere. It was done. God would have to take it from here. Me worrying myself to an ulcer before I got back to work on Monday was definitely a waste of resources.
I shook my head at Rochelle and considered reaching out and shaking hers. This time she was really in the zone. I spoke right into her ear, hoping it would jar her brain. "I wasn't really paying attention to the brother of the groom." Or any other man around here. What would be the point? The last guy I dated had just married my best friend.
Rochelle made a clucking sound. "You should have been paying attention. His brother is foine." She rolled her neck for effect, but didn't quite pull it off. I just stared. She'd been watching too much UPN again.
"Come on." I tugged at her arm and started back across the smattering of red-gold leaves, away from Mr. Foine. She'd hate me later if I didn't. If a brothah showed up tomorrow in response to Rochelle's flirting, she would run for her life while dictating a restraining order into her recorder.
Usually, her wedding trance would have been long since broken. But this was Tracey's wedding. And whether Rochelle and I were willing to admit it or not, we'd both thought that if anyone got married, it'd be one of the two of us, not the cute, fat, geek of the group. Not that Tracey was fat anymore. The plump-but-cute girl role was currently being played by moi. My midsection pressed against the strangling fabric of my dress as if in agreement.
Rochelle made a shrill sound, almost like a whistle. The weary-in-well-doing sigh. The sound she makes when she just can't take anymore. Not a good sign. Her pink leather t-strap shoes, designed by her own hand and much prettier than my castoffs from last year's spring formal, peeked from underneath her frock, several sizes smaller than my own. Our skirts skimmed the lawn every few steps. This was downright antebellum. If I didn't know better, I'd think a plantation was going to pop out of the ground any minute.
Rochelle's words cut through my thoughts. "I can't help feeling romantic on days like this. Lately, I even wonder if-"
"If what?" My body stiffened. I'd heard this speech before. All my die-hard single friends give this little talk before becoming wife wannabes. Tracey's little rant three months ago was still fresh in my mind. Rochelle? Despite her wedding breakdowns, I never thought I'd hear it from her. Well, not until Jericho graduated from high school anyway. That boy kept us all busy.
"I'm just talking," she said, moving faster. "It's nothing, really."
More like a big something, but I decided to leave it. This day had enough mess going without adding to it. "I hope the punch is good."
Rochelle nodded, gathering her skirt to gain a little speed. Good punch could cover a multitude of sins. Even Tracey marrying Ryan. (Okay, he's not so bad. He's rich, handsome and loves her to pieces. But there's just something creepy about the guy. I don't know. Forget I said anything).
While I pondered the groom's strangeness, Rochelle grabbed my wrist, digging her natural length nails into my flesh. Without looking at her, I knew it was already too late. And we'd almost made it to punchdom.
Tracey would not, could not throw that bouquet at me.
But she did.
A few inches ahead, a group of women floated onto the green in front of us, like a cloud of cotton candy. The bride broke through, holding her weapon of choice, peach hybrid roses from the Leverhill Botanical Gardens.
"Run!" Rochelle screamed with the concern of a fire marshal at a brewing blaze.
Obeying her command was my first mistake. The stop-drop-and-roll technique is always best to achieve my goals: avoiding head trauma, keeping the contacts in and keeping the dress covering my backside.
As previously stated, I deviated from this method.
When nothing tagged the back of my head (seriously, they stopped aiming for my hands two summers ago) I did a dumb thing and turned around. The bouquet slapped against my forehead like a Jackie Chan sound effect. I tripped on my skirt trying to escape (she'd already nailed me, of course, but it was instinct). My dress ballooned around my waist like a giant boat made of Bubble Yum.
Then . . . the pain burned beneath my eye. What was that? I dropped to one knee, jerking the whole pink mess of me back into place, while peeking through my fingers. Something I mistook for tears trickled into my mouth. Blood.
I wobbled to my feet. "What in the world?" I'd been hit with a lot of flowers, a few small shrubs even, but no one had ever drawn blood. This was past wrong.
Rochelle hovered over me, panting and picking greenery from between my braids. Satisfied with her job on that, she peeled back my fingers and surveyed the scratch under my eye. "The thorns. Tracey forgot to have them removed. It was the only thing on her list . . . Sorry."
I took my hand off my eye. Rochelle's tone let me know that she hadn't been in on this but she had been aware of the possibility. Not for the first time, the Sassy Sistahs had made me mad. Tracey approached slowly, waving like she always does after doing something crazy. I felt my anger wash away at the sight of her silly grin. Still, this was a bit much. "Thorns? You've got to be kidding."
"Wish I was." Rochelle dabbed my face with a napkin from her clutch. No doubt there was a first aid kit, needle and thread, makeup bag and two shades of pantyhose crammed in that tiny thing. How she'd even managed to hold on to it while trying to drag me to safety was beyond me, but I'd long given up on trying to figure out Chelle's superwoman capabilities. She just has skills like that. I'm lucky to keep my shoes on. (Although I did manage to keep my contacts in. A new accomplishment).
Just before Tracey reached us, someone from the groom's family intercepted and wheeled her away. The beginning of the end. She was no longer my roommate, my best friend. She was someone's wife. We walked past Tracey, giving us the "be right there" signals.
Rochelle smiled. I sulked. "Knowing Tracey, she probably thought it was more Christ-like to leave the thorns on." Mock disgust sounded in my voice. I was trying to be mad and couldn't.
"Hush you," Rochelle said, using our code phrase for when one started in on another of the three. It was the standard defense, but right now I felt like pushing past it.
Tracey joined us and slipped an arm around-well, almost around-my waist. "Got you, didn't I? Sorry about your eye though."
"You'd better be glad I love y'all," I whispered as people packed in around us. Pain seared my scalp where Rochelle had raked a stem through my hair.
"Maybe if you'd helped with the wedding errands, you could have taken care of those thorns." Rochelle said, reaching back in her purse for her dabbing cloth.
Ouch. That hurt way more than my eye. The truth always does. I pushed away Rochelle's hand, preferring to blink my own way back to health. In a minute, there'd be no skin left on the right side of my face. That girl was dangerous with a Kleenex.
Tracey started to say something, but was called away . . . again. I took a deep breath, watching her walk to behind the punch table with her mother-in-law. Where was the groom? Why was I the one getting jealous instead of him? Like I said, he's a little weird. This whole deal was. But there was no use trying to explain that to Rochelle. She wasn't trying to hear it. So I did what I always do-tried to explain it anyway.
"Look, Rochelle, I already regret not helping out with the wedding. But I just wasn't sure about this. When I dated Ryan-"
She tried the neck thing again, with success this time. "Dated? Is that what you call it? That mess was so boring he just stopped calling and came back to the singles group. So he wasn't for you. No reason he can't be the one for Tracey." In a deft motion, she grabbed a napkin from the table next to us, wadded it quickly and removed several layers of my epidermis. "There's just one last spot . . ."
She reached out again, but I shook my head, thinking I should have thrown in some cookies with the Ben and Jerry's waiting for me at home. Somehow we wandered into the punch line. We both relaxed allowing the tide of people to pull us forward. Only when a gruesome Pepto-pink cake with what looked like the watermelon gel I brushed my teeth with for filling came into view was I totally appalled. I definitely should have helped with the wedding plans. The gold-colored punch in the bowl beside the cake monster looked good though.
It would have to be.
From MADE OF HONOR, by Marilynn Griffith, Steeple Hill
ISBN 0373785542, January 2006, Copyright © 2006 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited. ® and tm are trademarks of the publisher. This edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.