Lauren and Jameson slowed again, and I prodded my best friend in the back to keep moving. We were going to clog the aisle if they had to pause at every little detail and launch a commentary. I should’ve known it might be like this.
Jameson had proposed to Lauren a few days ago in Florida. We all knew it was coming. Despite the ups and downs of all they went through to reach a happily ever after, they were such a solid pair of perfectly matched souls, they were bound to make up, move on, and seek marriage.
Maybe it was because of the newness of Lauren just becoming engaged that she was obsessed about all things to do with weddings. When she returned from Florida and showed us the ring, she was excited. Since then, she was one hundred percent on the wedding train, all thoughts and ideas and questions revolving around her wedding.
Bridal magazines, sample brochures, and countless wedding-vendor business cards lay scattered on the coffee table in the big house we shared with our three other friends. It was going to take over our lives. So of course, she’d be a guest with a hardcore critical eye on this wedding.
“Are you kidding me?” Lauren lifted her face with a not-so-hidden and wide-eyed expression that implied to Jameson she was thinking, are you seeing this? “Seriously?”
I leaned around the tall man and poked my head closer to see what was holding her up this time. “It’s a peony.” I shrugged. Was that specific flower a faux pas in the world of wedding décor? She’d be the one to know. It was pretty. It wasn’t in season, but then people who paid for weddings held at snazzy places like this could afford whatever bloom they wanted grown in a greenhouse somewhere in the world.
I narrowed my eyes, peering at it closer. “Oh. It’s silk.”
“It’s fake,” Lauren whispered in that scandalous tone again.
I pushed her hand down, setting the “flower” back into the arrangement tied to the post at the end of that row. “We’re going to be late.”
Jameson chuckled and took Lauren’s hand. “We’re not late.”
“Oh, we are. By her standards.”
I glanced behind us, smiling quickly at the people trying to get a seat in the row we blocked. “Sorry,” I mouthed. Ushering my friends further ahead, I leaned close to whisper. “We’re not late.” Yet. “But you’re walking around like a freaking art critic.”
“Just be happy I talked her out of bringing something to jot notes.”
Lauren smirked at her man. “Ridiculous. Making us check our phones in back there.” She pointed at him. “We’re not doing that. Nor are we having any fake flowers.”
He pecked a kiss to the top of her head. “Whatever you want, Lauren, you can have.” He’d said that so many times since he asked her to be his wife that he needed it tattooed on his forehead. What an easygoing guy.
“I want people to be able to take pictures,” Lauren said as we strolled along the aisle. “Just not right during the ceremony. It’s not nice to deprive people of their phones. They can just agree to not take pics during it all.”
“That’s a fair approach,” I agreed. But I bet she was itching to reach for her phone and snap pictures of how our friends Naomi and Colby had done their stuff. Lauren and I both knew the couple from high school. Naomi wasn’t too close, more of an acquaintance, and with so many years between graduation and now, we had all drifted apart. It happened. In fact, I spotted many familiar faces here. I couldn’t put a name to each one, but I recognized them as other classmates I’d lost track of over the years. Some of them, I hadn’t seen since the day we tossed our caps in the air and said farewell to school.
Lauren was correct in teasing me about punctuality. I loathed being late. If any of these former classmates were asked, they’d know I hated it back then as a teen too. Being tardy was a grievance I never allowed, and we were here. We weren’t late. But the longer we searched for a row of seats for all three of us, the more I felt like we were in the spotlight, standing above the gathering crowd already seated.
Under a spotlight was the last place I wanted to be. I wasn’t afraid of being seen. I wasn’t that introverted and shy. But I wanted to mark my nemesis before she could get a first look at me.
“How about here?” Jameson asked, indicating a row with several seats available.
“No.” Lauren rolled her eyes. “That’s the groom’s side. We have to go over there.” She raised her brows. “Groom and bride guests and family seating on opposite sides of the aisle? No. No thanks.”
He smiled. “Duly noted.”
“There are some chairs.” I pointed ahead, and we moved over to claim them. Jameson sat closest to the aisle, Lauren sat next to him, and I claimed the furthest in.
The outdoor reception area was filling up fast, and as we settled into our seats, I continued to scour the crowd.
“Look at this,” Lauren said in that judgy yet casual tone. She lifted the bouquet that was strung around the back of another post to my left. “Real flowers, so they get points for that. But white?” She shook her head. “Boring. I want color, Jameson.”
“Okay.” He nodded, catching my eye and holding back a laugh. I doubted he cared about the colors. He was just happy to have his girl.
I rolled my eyes, joining him in teasing Lauren behind her back as she leaned forward to push the flowers back into their tie. She used too much force though, and the bunch fell to the ground.
“Lauren!” I hissed.
“Oh, they haven’t even started the music yet. Switch with me.”
We shuffled, her taking my chair and me sliding over to sit at Jameson’s left.
“What about those cups at the entrance?” Jameson asked as she tried to cram the flowers back in place, frowning when they wouldn’t cooperate.
“What about them?” I asked.
“The cider?” Lauren said.
“Yeah. Well, I was wondering if they had alcohol in them.” He shrugged. “To take the edge off.”
Lauren giggled. “Only the bride and groom would have to worry about needing to tame their nerves. It’s their big day.”
Uh, speak for yourself. I’m not so sure I agree. I was more than antsy here as a guest, anxious about who else would come and attend this ceremony.
“Besides,” Lauren added. “Naomi and Colby have practically been married since seventh grade. They’ve got no reason for nerves. Now that tray of cider you’re thinking of?” She grinned wide. “I love that idea for a cold-weather wedding.”
“But I thought we were leaning on a summer date,” Jameson argued.
By we, he meant she.
She growled lightly. “I’m not sure. Maybe waiting until the fall would make it more romantic.”
“You’re going to smash it,” I warned, leaning over to help her with the flowers. I was used to handling plants, always in the garden, but an artistic floral display was something else. I furrowed my brow, trying to stab the stems back in the mess.
“See what I mean? Why won’t this thing just stay up?” Lauren lifted her face, checking that the wedding wasn’t about to begin. When she faced forward, she narrowed her eyes.
“It think this ribbon is in the way. Ow!” I reared back from her, rubbing my side where she suddenly dug her elbow in hard. “What was that for?” I hissed under my breath, already slightly embarrassed over how loud I reacted.
She exaggerated opening her eyes wide as she pointed ahead at the front entrance, where Colby would soon stand with Naomi at the altar. I followed her gaze and froze.
A blonde bombshell had just arrived. She was still just as tall but not in a gangly way. All her curves fell in the right spots, her boobs so huge and high, her waist so thin above slender legs. With a slight tilt of her head, she sent her loose golden waves back from her shoulder, revealing flawless tanned skin.
“I can’t believe it,” Lauren whispered hotly.
I did. I had been worrying about this woman showing her face here, and now that she had, dread set in. My stomach knotted and my shoulders rose in a slight hunch. I wanted to curl up and hide. Facing her wasn’t high on my list of things to accomplish. Most of the people here were familiar in a forgotten way, but not this woman.
“She’s wearing white at someone else’s wedding?” Lauren hissed.
“I think it’s actually a little pink,” Jameson said. “Maybe?”
“I swear, if someone shows up to my wedding in a dress like that, you’ve got my permission to spill red wine on them,” Lauren muttered.
My stomach tensed even more as the woman paused and scanned the other half of the seated crowd. Like a model posing. Like a star soaking up all the attention. Right on the aisle, in a dress that would be an insult to Naomi and steal her thunder.
“I’m not surprised,” I whispered. “Gwen always had to be the center of attention.”
Lauren gasped. “No.”
“Yeah. That’s Gwen.”
Lauren leaned forward, squinting. “Holy shit. That is Gwen. Did you know she was coming?”
“How could I?” I had worried she might be here, though. I had counted on the possibility of it. And now I had to suffer through it.
She smiled sweetly as an usher hurried up to her, urging her to move along. If he hadn’t asked her to be seated, she probably would’ve stayed there. With a practiced strut, she came down the aisle. Closer to us. Closer.
“Lean forward,” I hissed at Jameson. Even though I tried to prepare myself for seeing her again, I just wasn’t ready.
He chuckled but obliged. “Jeez.” As he slanted forward, I ducked behind him, angling my legs toward Lauren. She lifted her hand to her face and hurried to cover it and glance away, also trying to hide.
Behind Jameson, I spotted Gwen strolling down the aisle like it was her runway.
“Should I call her over?” Jameson joked. His back moved with his chuckle. I tucked behind him as Gwen ambled closer.
Lauren reached over to swat his arm. “Don’t you dare.”
“Jameson, don’t even think about it,” I warned.
He tugged at his collar. “Damn. My bad. What did this girl do to you?” He glanced at Lauren, then me, and I sat up slowly, still hunching my shoulders. Gwen had found a seat a couple of rows up.
Jameson looked at me expectantly, brows raised, and I hesitated to answer.
My stomach rolled. The ceremony was about to start. Colby showed at the altar. This wasn’t the time or place to explain my history with that blonde, and the thought of speaking about it gnawed at my insides. “It’s not what she did,” I said quietly.
It’s who she did it with.
Lauren grabbed my hand and squeezed. “She made Jenny’s final years of high school absolutely terrible.”
I gestured for her to reclaim her seat next to Jameson. Once we sat again, I glanced at Jameson and noticed the sympathy and pity on his face. “She never apologized. For any of it.”
Jameson frowned, turning to see her again through the crowd of heads.
“Don’t.” Lauren grabbed his sleeve, stopping him. “She thrives on attention. And we’re not giving her that.”
I wanted to burrow into my seat and hide. At least Lauren and Jameson were here with me. I didn’t have to face her completely alone.
“She’s a bully,” I whispered as a final answer as I eyed the back of her very blonde head. “Nothing but a bully.”