Audrey Wick: Blown

SLS: I am Texas born/raised and can write as well as I can two-step. But weddings can make my stomach sick, just like my main character in “Blown.”

Blown

Weddings always made my stomach sick. My older brother Juno’s first marriage to Brandy was no different.

I had been calling it a first marriage under my breath ever since the moisture dried on the envelope flaps that Brandy sent for “Save the Date” notices. The notices read more like a warning than an invitation, especially with the engagement photo chosen. In it, Brandy’s arm was linked possessively through Juno’s wooden pose of his hand on his hip. I couldn’t quite tell if she was pushing, pulling, or trying to do both.

“Stop calling it my first marriage,” Juno would demand each time I said something. But his appeals didn’t deter me.

Half of a duo named for alcohol, Brandy and her twin, Sherry, outdid each other for most annoying person in a crowd. Maybe their parents were as annoyed by them as newborns, which is why they branded them with the names. Or perhaps their parents thought the labels were cute and would fit them throughout their stages: two crying infants, two tipsy toddlers, two high-maintenance teens.

Whatever the reason, the outcome was the same: for me, the mere sight of either Brandy or Sherry made me as sick as a hangover.

It was their voice, the nasal-stuffed throated bellows they forced into any conversation, whether invited or not. And their hips, which in their early twenties were already spread too wide to be attractive. And their phony laughter, masking something I couldn’t quite put my finger on but didn’t care to expend the energy trying to uncover.

Now with the wedding day underway, I was having to perform my smiling-brother-of-the-groom role, but I was just posing. Juno and I fought like brothers, and we always had. I had heard the phrase “brotherly love,” but in the MacLeod house, “brotherly torture” was a more appropriate description for the interactions between the two of us. He picked on me as an easy mark because that’s just what he did. So no way was Juno going to make me best man. His long-time friend, Alex, took that title. Some other twenty-something-year-olds rounded out the party of groomsmen. Juno wanted to demote me to church usher status for the wedding when plans were being finalized, but my parents insisted he make me a groomsman. So they rented the monkey suit and I showed up in it.

Brandy’s parents reserved the Cactus Hotel ballroom for the reception, which was the fanciest place to hold a party in all of San Angelo. At thirteen stories, the Cactus Hotel was the largest building in downtown, and Brandy aimed to make everything about the wedding itself large too. Her Denim and Diamonds theme splashed glitz and gaud more obtrusively than the Concho River through our west Texas town.

For my part, I embraced her chosen theme but with my own twist: blue hair chalk. After the church ceremony and all the posed pictures within it had been snapped, I changed looks in my Explorer, an older model bruise-colored vehicle I named Professor Plum, which was a nod to Clue, my favorite board game as a kid. But at eighteen, I didn’t play games much anymore.

Using the rearview mirror as my guide, I ran my fingers through my hair to loosen the gel I put in earlier and dabbed about an inch of chalk on the longer ends, letting the front pieces fall into my face.

Much better.

There were so many vehicles outside the Cactus that it looked like everyone had arrived solo. My mom and dad each drove their vehicles, too, my mom arguing something about a salon appointment before the wedding this morning that made my dad grab his keys and say “Fine.” He was giving-in like that with a lot of things lately.

The hall was big enough to be uncomfortable but small enough for me to be trapped into a conversation by someone, at least when I was in the ballroom. Not half an hour after arriving, that’s the game Brandy played: who can the bride trap into a conversation? I knew I was her next target when she hiked the layers of her gown and exposed her red cowboy boots, pointed the toe boxes right at me, and paced across the wooden floor of the ballroom. Clutching layers of fabric around her midsection made her look like a pregnant heifer, and she had the bovine eyes and thick personality to match, though I know no one would dare say so. Not tonight. Who calls a bride out on her wedding night?

“Cooper!” Brandy bellowed. She lumbered toward me, her boot heels clicking the planks of the wooden ballroom floor loud enough to be heard even above the din of the rest of the activity. I had been talking to my cousin, Trevor, who came up from Del Rio the night before. He bolted, though, as soon as he saw Brandy making her way.

“Gonna get a refill.” He grabbed my near-empty punch cup and turned before I had time to follow him. He better at least come back with some kind of beer in that cup.

“Coop!” She called again, now just a couple of feet in front. With her final step, she heaved a sigh as if she had just trekked across Big Bend. Her corralled breasts lifted and lowered in unison with her deep breathing.  I half-expected her to start massaging them like bruised cantaloupes. Her tits were big, but not in an attractive way. Probably their size would make them sag like bowling pins in another decade, if her marriage to my brother even lasted that long.

“Co-oop!” she breathed in a hushed tone. My stare rose from her chest to her lips as I saw her stifle a smile. Brandy loved to get attention, no matter what the reason. “Eyes on me,” she giggled. Dropping her hands, she released her gathered skirt layers, making it look like she was going to be standing in one place for a while.

“What do you need now?” I couldn’t hide the bitterness. She had me practically running across all sides of the ballroom during yesterday’s decorating marathon, and her demands of “move this higher” or “more to the left” or “let’s try swapping this out over there” left me annoyed. She was a bride, but she was acting like a snooty Miss Texas pageant contestant who could only manage third runner-up.

“Daddy told me that more ice is going to be needed for all the beer that’s in the coolers.”

“Which ones?” She and Juno had ordered Bud Light on Tap but Budweiser and Michelob in cans, so half of what people were drinking had to be rotated in ice. My brother distributed for Anheuser-Busch, so why he couldn’t get someone else to do this—or be less of a cheapskate and have gotten all on-tap beer—was a stupid move on his part.

“Both.” She pushed out her lower lip in a fake attempt to visually apologize for any inconvenience.

“Why doesn’t your dad just grab some of the 40-pound bags still left in the walk-in cooler off the kitchen?” That seemed an easy enough task for the father-of-the-bride.

She twisted her lower lip and tilted down her head. “My father’s not the one who asked.”

And right then I understood but wished I hadn’t.

Her annoying reply was worse than fingernails on a chalkboard: “Our Daddy needs you to do it.”

Our Daddy? You need to get one thing straight: My dad is not your dad.

My feet didn’t budge. I didn’t care what the pastor said four hours ago when those two uttered “I do” and everyone had to sit through that business of “And the two shall become one.” My family was still MY family.

“Daddy said—” she started again, and I could hear the fingernails screeching in my head.

“All right,” I conceded, just wanting to shut her up. I wiped the side of my face with my hand, frustrated at her for asking the way she was and frustrated at Trevor for leaving me like that. He must have known a request like this was coming. I vowed to get him back later.

“Oh, and one more thing.” Brandy leaned in, her ample cleavage spilling through ropes of pearls and over a low-stitched neckline. “That tie’s a little crooked.” Before I could pull back, she fingered my tuxedo bowtie into a position that satisfied her before adding “and nice blue hair” with a giggle. Then, she hiked up her skirt and turned on her heel to go interrupt someone else and fish for compliments about how glowing she was on her wedding day.

Juno was going to have a hard first marriage.

**********

“You run off like that again and I swear I’ll . . .” I bumped Trevor’s shoulder with my fist when I finally caught up to him.

“She didn’t want to talk to me anyway,” he dismissed.

“So what?” It didn’t matter that Trevor knew Brandy was bee-lining for me. He still shouldn’t have bolted.

He shrugged. “She doesn’t know me.”

“She knows you can carry and crack a 40-pound bag of ice.” Two available guys with strong backs to meet every one of Brandy’s demands seemed like reason enough for her to try and get us both together to do work at this reception.

“But she’s not going to ask me like she’ll ask you,” Trevor countered, defending his swift exit.

“You don’t know Brandy.” And he didn’t.

He shrugged again. “Fair enough.”

I pointed through the foyer and toward another doorway. “So will you help me with the ice over there or what?”

He sighed. “Yeah, I’ll help you.”

“Hey.” Trevor leaned in and lowered his voice as we walked. “Is she really that bad?” He had only met Brandy once or twice before and, for all I knew, she was on her best behavior then. It was either that, or she had dialed back her level of crazy. People do all kinds of weird things in public, but they hide a fair share of it too.

Maybe her wedding wasn’t the most ideal place to answer Trevor’s question about what was bad about Brandy, but he had already asked it.

So we are going to get into this. “You know Sherry?” I mimicked rounded boobs across my own tuxedo-clad chest.

Of course Trevor didn’t know her, but he didn’t have to. “Definitely seen her. Hard to miss her the way she waddles when she walks.” He puffed out his chest, but the attempt at mocking Sherry’s boobs failed. Trevor didn’t have the same kind of weight up top.

“So . . . ,” I fisted him more playfully this time on the shoulder, and he snapped his chest back into place. I leaned in further as we passed the entrance foyer. “Juno tried to go out with Sherry once when he was broken up with Brandy.”

“For real?” Trevor’s enthusiasm was clipped by an unexpected “God damn, what was that?” He paused to shake his foot which had kicked one of the potted plants outlining the entry.

“Fern.” I shook my head in sympathy. “I kept kicking those the same way yesterday when I had to haul them in.”

Using the side of his shoe, Trevor thrust the pot back into line with the others. “Guess you’ll be hauling them out tonight too.”

I hadn’t actually thought of who was going to do that, so I made a mental note to disappear early before anyone could ask. While I was filing away that reminder, I turned the handle and pushed through the door into the food preparation and storage area, and Trevor kept close behind.

“So tell me this story with Juno and Sherry,” Trevor prompted, his voice at my back. He shadowed me as we walked through the kitchen. “You mean Juno really tried to get with her? Did they fool around or what?”

“Hell if I know.” And I didn’t. Juno and Brandy had broken up so many times it was hard to keep track. “But one night they were in the driveway arguing real bad when my parents weren’t there.”

“Wait. When was this?”

“Six months or so. Maybe eight.” I didn’t know why he needed to know that. “Listen.” I was trying to tell him this story.

“Fine. Go ahead.” We rounded the corner to an area fronting the walk-in cooler, and I was just about to start up the details about their big fight when I realized we weren’t alone.

A woman was sprawled on a butcher block table pushed against the wall of this nook, with a man angling on top of her, his head buried in her neck. He rocked back and forth as he fingered his way up her leg, fabric inching higher and higher, clothes on but maybe not for long.

It was something I wished I hadn’t seen.

“What the—?” I squinted my eyes and knew instantly that I recognized the woman’s hair.

Mom.

They uncoupled with the man’s hasty dismount followed by an angry muttering under his breath. She cowered her shoulders and tugged at her skirt fabric to loosen it from being folded around her thighs. He wedged his hand down his pants as he spun to face away from us, and my mom’s bare feet searched the floor for her heels. Trevor’s rapid breathing heated my neck, both of us equally stunned silent in that moment.

“Cooper,” my mom’s voice was breathless. Her eyes were sharp in recognizing me, but they couldn’t seem to function in any other way. They darted to us, behind us, and back again. Her hands floundered, searching the air, her forehead, and the back of her ear before I heard a shoe slide across the floor that the man kicked over to her.

“Left one,” the man instructed. My mom responded by balancing on her right foot to slide into the heel.

I backed into Trevor, but he didn’t budge.

“Sorry,” he apologized to no one in particular.

“Sorry,” I answered, just because it was easy to repeat what I heard so close to my ear. But that was far from the word I wanted to say.

My mom cleared her throat nervously. “Cooper,” she started again. “Don’t even think, I mean—don’t try to—” Every word was labored, an uncomfortable pause between some instructions that I wasn’t understanding.

“Fuck,” Trevor breathed again.

“Fuck.” I echoed. And then, because it was the only word that was sounding clear, I repeated it louder. “Fuck!” And louder. “FUCK!” And louder. “FUUCCK!”

“Cooper!” My mother tried in one hurried breath to silence my chanting, but I just swiped the back of my palm over my mouth to clear the spit and said it a few more times before I finally purged the word out of my system. A crashing silence between us hung in the aftermath like laundry on a clothesline.

But not clean laundry. Dirty laundry.

My mother straightened her posture and repositioned pins in her salon-styled hair to smooth out the side that had fallen, probably just now during whatever happened on that butcher block table as she said “Don’t say anything” as calmly now as she might instruct me “Don’t forget the milk” or “Don’t pump premium” on the way to the corner store. “Now go back out to the reception. You too, Trevor.”

You can’t shoo us out of here like we’re still little kids.  

“But the ice,” Trevor countered. I was surprised he even managed to say that because I was still trying to untie my tongue.

My mother tilted her head. “Ice?”

I jolted back into job mode, focusing on the task that brought us into this mess in the first place. I managed to mutter a few words that sounded more like burps about Brandy sending us to get some.

“Your father didn’t send you?” She was frozen in step just a few feet in front of us.

“He wanted us to get it too.” I kept my eyes on the man whose back was still turned to us, making a mental note of the exact shade and lines of his suit, his hair so dark that it was both brown and black, his height. If I had seen him anywhere before, the memory wasn’t registering.

“I see . . .” My mother took one slow step forward. She locked eyes. “Then you better not keep him waiting.” I shifted my shoulder and stepped aside as she angled to get through, but since Trevor didn’t move fast enough, a shuffle of feet and tangle of arms nearly toppled both of them to the floor. My mother, however, exerted just enough poise to regain her footing and avoid any physical contact on her way past as she headed back into the reception.

I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t even think straight. Beads of sweat dotted my forehead, grazed my eyebrows, and spilled into eyes that stung. I wanted to run, but running would mean going after my mom. I wasn’t nearly prepared to do that.

There was only one way in and one way out from where the guy now stood alone, so he either needed to have the balls to walk past us or we’d keep him longer than any of us wanted to be standing there.

Trevor broke the silence that was left in my mother’s wake with a smug question to the man. “So how do you know the bride and groom?”

Trevor had guts.

The man turned over his shoulder toward us both, but he locked eyes only with Trevor. Whether he was avoiding mine or just looking at Trevor since he had asked the question, I wasn’t sure, but I was able to register a solid view of his face. Something about it burned with recognition.

“Friend of the family,” he responded dryly and without blinking. He followed my mom’s route with a few hurried steps. My body tensed as he strode past, and my heart thumped uncomfortably high in my chest.

Where I was frozen, Trevor couldn’t stand still. He spun around to watch the guy. “You know him?”

Maybe.

I blew a loose piece of blue-chalked hair out of my eyes, trying to cool the sweat while keeping my focus fixed on the open air through which he had trailed my mother. Instinct told me to follow them just to see if he was actually part of the wedding or not, but my eyes had no interest in seeing more than they already had. I wasn’t prepared to say anything just yet. “Nope. Don’t know him.” Even as I answered Trevor, the words didn’t sound right.

“That’s messed up.” He shook his head, probably trying to force away the image of what he saw. I needed to do that too, but the problem wasn’t in my head.

From deep in my gut, a wrenching discomfort seized me. I knew it coming into this day: weddings always made my stomach sick. I just hadn’t expected the pains to be this strong.

Then it hit me, the churn in my stomach lurching upwards and recognition slapping me in the face so hard I thought I would tumble to the floor. I did know that bastard.

**********

The ballroom’s three chandeliers cast crystalline shadows, and everyone in the reception seemed to move just a bit slower than in real life under their nighttime glow. Faces, too, looked alien in the dim light. Profiles glided past in constant swarms of conversation and laughter, but whether the expressions were genuine or smug was hard to tell.

“I got to get out of here,” I told Trevor when we stepped back into the ballroom. The temperature of all the bodies in the room colliding with the blast of air conditioning made the atmosphere heavy like fog. Surely Trevor had to sense it too.

He caught my arm. “You’re not going anywhere.”

My eyes darted around the reception. I rammed my hand against my temple and then through my blue-streaked hair getting sticky from the perspiration building on my hairline. “I can’t stay here.”

“You don’t have a choice.” Trevor’s words were firm as he kept his voice low. “You run out now and people are going to ask questions.”

Shouldn’t someone be asking questions? 

“You’ve got to stay,” he continued. “It’s Juno’s wedding. Cut the cake. First dance. Pictures. This gig ain’t over.”

My thoughts were as skewed as this day. “Did you just see what I saw?”

He nodded, but I knew he didn’t want to say it aloud either or think about it anymore than I did. I wanted the images out of my head.

“Stay,” he urged simply. “Make it through.” He loosened the grip on my arm and sighed. “Maybe just another hour and all this will be over. Duties done. Then we’ll take off. We’ll figure something out.”

I nodded. I could put up a front for an hour.

“Maybe staying here,” Trevor continued, “we can at least find out who that guy is.”

But I already knew who he was. 

My thoughts swam with the memory of where I had seen that man, though the exact details were fuzzy. If I could concentrate, maybe I’d recall enough to share with Trevor later, but I needed to make sure I wasn’t off base before I did. And I needed to figure out the extent of what we had seen. Had Trevor and I discovered a one-time incident, or was this just the tip of a much larger affair rearing its head?

My eyes scanned the crowd for that man, and I knew I’d be doing that for the next hour, with Trevor’s help. The difference was I was looking for someone I had seen before, whereas Trevor clearly was seeing this guy for the first time. The moment his jaw dropped and his eyes grew as round as Frisbees told me as much. But what we witnessed forged an instant pact, and we were going to have to figure out what to say or not say. Neither of us, though, seemed to want to talk about the details right away. What should be said anyway about something like that?

Luckily there was music to help us camouflage this secret, at least for a while.

The live band’s steel guitar pumped chords of energy through the Cactus’ ballroom for the only part of the wedding worth attending: the dance. The band played from a mirrored corner of the ballroom next to one of several floor-to-ceiling windows that reflected candle light and soft illumination from the wall sconces. High ceiling arches created a romantic effect, though I wasn’t in the mood for romance.

My mind turned to revenge. And sometimes payback was a real bitch.

“Trevor . . .” I leaned in and kept my voice low. “Do me a favor.”

“Sure thing.” His eyes scanned the crowd as intently as mine.

“Let me know when you see him.”

He nodded, though I knew from his eagle-eye stare that he was already on it.

Our reconnaissance was interrupted by a tug on my elbow and a high-pitched female voice insisting, “Come on.” Turning, I saw one of a half-dozen bridesmaids in an identical blue gown nodding toward the band. “Brandy wants the wedding party lined up together for a photo.” She spun on her heel and wanted me to follow her before I could reply.

I rolled my eyes at Trevor. “Really? Do I have to do this?” as if he could give me permission anyway.

“Go do it.” He raised his chin, his eyes above the crowd. “I’ll keep looking around.”

I drug my foot along the floor as I turned, taking slow steps toward the rest of the wedding party. I hadn’t even bothered to learn everyone’s name, especially the bridesmaids. Since I suspected Juno would be having another wedding someday anyway, what was the point?

The photographer was already motioning for couples to move this way and that. “Squeeze in a little closer there,” he called in a strain, trying to stay a notch above the band in volume. I walked to the corner of the mass of tuxedos and gowns to get into what I thought would be the frame.

The photographer leaned in to adjust the camera’s lens on the tripod, then brought his head above it as he pointed to me. “Best man by the groom.”

I was not the best man.

I glanced over to Juno, who quickly slung his arm around Alex’s shoulder. He corrected the photographer’s mistake with a too-loud “This is my best man.”

I shifted my weight and ran my hand through my sweat-slick hair. I needed to get this over with. The photographer leaned in again and a bright, unannounced shudder click nearly blinded me.

Was that the real picture? 

I looked around, little white orbs of light blurring what I saw.

Everyone shifted in closer, their fake smiles as blinding as the flash from the camera. I turned toward Sherry’s, whose photo-ready freeze was the fakest of them all. Behind that plastered pose, surely there were emotions about her twin sister marrying Juno since he had tried to get with her during a break-up. My eyes roamed from her smile down to her neck and across her ample cleavage, sidetracking as I considered how such big boobs were even real.

I pried my eyes from her chest as the photographer called out, “Now, on three” followed by a countdown that made me hold my breath and clench my teeth to steady a facial pose that didn’t scream how much I hated this wedding.

“Cheese!” The wedding party cried in unison while the bold flash of the camera blinded us all for a second time.

Posers. Fakes. Every single one.  

I rubbed my eyes the instant the photographer stepped back to examine the digital shot, trying to scrape away the annoying lingering orbs that lit the inside of my lids.

A reverberating cymbal crash ended the band’s warmup song while three percussion stick clicks signaled the start of the bride and groom’s first official dance. I wanted no part of that, so I cut across the side of the dance floor to make my way back to Trevor, still blinking away temporary camera blindness with every step.

But I wasn’t too blind to see him.

That bastard. 

There he was, plain as day. 

But this time, he was with a different woman. The same hint of gray in the roots of her hair and tiny lines feathering the corner of her eyes were a dead giveaway to her middle age. Her hand draped over his shoulder as she stood close, a diamond wedding ring on proud display that glinted brightly enough to signal marriage even from where I stood. Same age: husband and wife? I wasn’t sure, but it looked like they could be. Yet it was the person on the other side of him that had more of my attention.

Could that be his daughter?

I squinted at the sight of my mom’s mystery man, knowing the girl at his side did share his hair color and complexion. Her nose, too, was the same ski-slope shape. But her jawline was rounded, much more like the woman’s. She seemed to be a half blend of each of their physical characteristics.

The girl mouthed something to the man I couldn’t make-out as she cinched a violet cardigan she wore over her dress more tightly around her chest, which I could still see was developed enough to place her as high school-aged. He put his arm around her, rubbed the sleeve of the cardigan to warm her, and kissed the top of her head. When he did, I swear he peered right at me.

Sick. 

But I could be, too. That gave me an idea.

I swerved from my plan to rejoin Trevor and started in the man’s direction instead. Or more appropriately, to the girl at his side.

The man’s eyes stayed on me, narrowing into tiny slits to warn me not to come any closer. I pulled at the hem of my tuxedo jacket, cleared my throat, and took a final few measured steps until I was just inches from him, close enough to pop him in the jaw if it came to that.

It took every ounce of courage I had, every bit of controlled anger bubbling up inside of me to turn to the girl next to him—the one in a violet cardigan that held breasts I knew made her close to my age—extend my hand and ask, “May I have the next dance?”

I expected her to be stunned since she didn’t know me, and I was glad she didn’t answer right away. It gave me time to add, laced with a tone cryptic and proud, “That is, if it’s okay with your dad.”

I smiled the first genuine smile I had cracked all night. Ah, revenge.

**********

“Marissa.” Her hazel eyes met mine as she offered her name. Since she didn’t correct my comment about her dad, I knew that’s how they had to be related. She let her hand fall from holding her cardigan and accepted my outstretched right hand. I responded by cupping my left over hers and pulled her forward and just far enough away from her father so I wasn’t within the line of what was surely fire breathing through his nostrils as I said, “I’ll take good care of her.”

“You better,” she chided, letting me lead her a couple of steps hand-in-hand without her father saying a word. She spun around to smile at him, though she couldn’t have seen the same look of shock and anger on his face that I was seeing. That nonverbal payback punch to him felt good.

“Is that your mom, too?” I needed confirmation.

“Oh,” she responded, caught off-guard by the question. “Yeah.”

Bingo. 

As if on cue, I saw her mom reach for her dad’s hand as I pulled their daughter away. That’s it, I thought. Hold your husband’s hand. Keep it away from my mother. She probably had no idea where that hand had recently been.

Marissa spun around to face me, her dangly earrings catching some of the light from above and brushing against her soft curls that looked half brown, half black against the top of the floral dress that was now exposed by her unbuttoned, loosed cardigan.

One perk of being a groomsman—maybe the only perk of being a groomsman—was the freedom to be bolder here in the darkness of the ballroom than I normally would have been in the light of day. Somehow even the rented tuxedo seemed to arm me with a bravado I didn’t normally have.

I side stepped to rest shoulder-to-shoulder so we could watch the remainder of Juno and Brandy’s first dance, away from earshot of her father and his wife. I slid my hand around her waist, placing my lips close to her ear. “Do you dance?”

Her eyes reflected the light from the chandeliers, and she responded by nestling in closer to my hold. “Didn’t you already ask me that?”

“I just asked if you wanted to.”

She turned and caught my eyes. “I do.”

What an answer for a wedding reception. 

A girl with some fire: I could handle that, at least for one round of revenge while her father watched.

In the middle of the floor, the newest married couple solidified their union with their first dance, all eyes on Juno and Brandy MacLeod as they shuffled and twirled and grinned. I decided then that I better introduce myself. By way of explanation, I offered, “Juno’s brother.”

“I know.”

You do?

“Cooper, right?”

I knew her father by sight, but I didn’t know her. Until just now. So the fact that she knew my name instantly made me sweat even more. I didn’t even know how to respond.

Breezily, she did. “It was in the wedding program we got at the church.”

Phew! “Right,” I breathed with a low expression of relief. “The program,” I repeated.

The MacLeod’s first dance concluded with whistles and applause, and the lead singer in the band announced over the microphone, “Now let’s have the wedding party join the bride and groom on the floor.”

Just as I had planned: her father was going to have to see this. I had his daughter in my arms, and I knew who he had in his earlier. And there wasn’t a thing he could do but watch and wonder about my intentions. Would they be as sleazy as his? He’d have to wait and see.

To prolong his worry, I really hoped this was going to be a long song.

I led Marissa onto the floor as did the other groomsmen and bridesmaids with their assigned partners. My paired bridesmaid for the wedding itself—one of Brandy’s cousins from some place off in east Texas—brought her college boyfriend along to the wedding, so she wasn’t missing a dance with me.

I traced Marissa’s waist with my right hand and held her steady once my palm settled into the small of her back, right beneath where the cardigan hit on her waist. My left hand accepted hers into a dance hold. Our bodies were close enough to breath in unison. “Ready?”

“Not really,” she teased, glancing down at her feet. Or mine. It was hard to tell.

“Trust me,” I reassured her.

She loosened just enough so that I could get my legs in the correct position, and I led her with a step back as the music began. She stepped effortlessly, allowing her body to be led by my movements.

“Nice,” I reassured her again. It was always a bit tricky to match the pace of a dance partner with the tempo in a song, so the first few steps could sometimes be rough. But mine with Marissa weren’t like that at all. There was an ease about it, and I wasn’t sure how much of that was because of my lead and how much of it was due to the graceful way she followed.

I pulled back just a bit to look at Marissa squarely. With her heels, she was an inch or so shorter than I was, so we almost looked eye-to-eye. And whereas that invasion of space with a stranger would have been uncomfortable normally, somehow it wasn’t. Not with her.

Since I pulled back, she was able to glance down again at our feet. “You picked the right shoes tonight,” she said.

I changed into more comfortable footwear after the ceremony since the boots Juno picked made me walk like I was saddle-sore.

I don’t even like horses. Can’t remember the last time I rode one. Or wore boots.

I may have been born in Texas, but the boots weren’t me. Grandpa taught me to dance because he insisted every boy from Texas learn how to do that, and I practiced all my moves over the years in rubber-soled shoes with a broom for a partner. After the ceremony, I wasted no time in getting more relaxed. I rolled the hems of my tuxedo trousers, slipped on my favorite pair of black canvas Converse lace-ups, and immediately my lower limbs melted into something familiar.

I was glad Marissa noticed.

“I kinda like your bracelet, too.” I followed her eyes to where she was looking at my wrist.

“Thanks.” The leather was worn, but the button clasp still held. “Something I made.”

She cocked her head and locked eyes as I looked up. “You made that?”

“Skeptical?” I held her stare.

“I just didn’t expect—” It suddenly felt like the perfect time for a spin, so I whipped my hand to the front of her waist. If she had resisted, she would have t-boned me. But she didn’t. “Cooper!” she called out through the entire 360-degree rotation. I snapped her back into my hold.

“Yes?” I replied with a smirk.

She huffed a little, a breezy release of air that accented perfect dimples in each cheek. Her huffing was cute, and so was that look.

I peered over her shoulder since we had completed one rotation around the dance floor and were back in front of where her parents stood. Watching. Marissa’s mother held tight to her father’s hand as she smiled across the scene, glancing at us but then scanning all of the dancers on the floor, blissfully unaware of how uncomfortable I was trying to make her husband feel. I sensed it working, for his eyes cut like razors through the air that separated us. Anyone else would have probably thought they were the protective eyes of a father over his daughter. But I could tell his eyes weren’t really on her; they were on me.

And it was sweet revenge knowing I had the upper hand.

Now, I needed to find out more about this girl and make sure my memory of her father wasn’t totally off-base. “So do you live in San Angelo?”

“All my life.” Then she reciprocated. “Go to school here?”

“Central,” I answered. “Senior.”

“Me too!” She nodded with a knowing smile. “Lake View.”

No surprise I hadn’t seen her before since we went to rival high schools in San Angelo. She started talking about school and graduation, mentioning a few people from Lake View I knew, a couple of seniors who used to play in my Little League circuit. So we knew some of the same students, but what about adults?

I wonder if she knows my mother. 

We eased in step and rounded another corner of the floor, so I spun her quickly to make the turn. She threw her head back and laughed—but she kept up. Our legs didn’t pretzel together even once. Each step was in near-perfect unison, her balance accentuating her tight waist and lean torso. She readjusted her hand, and gravity forced her loose cardigan sleeve around her elbow, exposing tender, red skin that looked like a burn patch on her forearm. I couldn’t help but stare.

Instantly, she unclasped my hand and wiggled her arm by her side to slacken the scrunched fabric, covering the sensitive spot I clearly wasn’t supposed to see. The rest of her body immediately tensed.

“What happened?” But as soon as I asked, I knew I shouldn’t have. It was too private. Her eyes averted mine and she only grasped my hand again loosely, seemingly obliged since we were on display in the middle of the dance floor and there was nowhere to run. I offered a quick apology. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Her reply was blunt, uninterested almost.

Maybe her father isn’t the only one with secrets in the family. 

I made sure to keep her hand in mine but not brush that area of her arm, safely covered again by fabric. The final chord of the song ended, but it was just a second’s delay before the band started the next. It couldn’t end like this. I needed more time with this girl, but for more than one reason.

“Again?” I prompted.

She shook her head. “You’re breathing kind of hard.”

Christ, am I?

I couldn’t let her go—not yet. I hadn’t even figured out my next move.

Marissa pursed her lips waiting for my reply, and her dimples formed again, the cutest combination of frozen and coy. She hadn’t let go of my hand, so I twisted my forearm to draw her in closer. “Then that means we’ll dance slower.”

Smooth, Cooper. 

Maybe she didn’t forget about exposing her arm—and I surely didn’t forget seeing it—but she didn’t race off the floor either. She was giving me a second dance. And forcing her father to watch us for longer than I had planned.

But the thing about this was, as uncomfortable as the whole event should have been, this was actually the one time during the entire wedding I was feeling the opposite. With Marissa, I was totally comfortable. I had wanted revenge, but instead I was experiencing a swift surge of attraction that rocked me more than the music. And for the first time all day, I wasn’t totally hating this wedding.

What I did hate was the straightening memory of exactly how long my mother had known Marissa’s dad, for I must have been in junior high when I met him that time at her office. Four years ago? Or five? Whatever the exact time frame, it was long enough to confirm that what Trevor and I had uncovered was really the tip of a much larger iceberg, an iceberg that was turning into a slippery, sliding mess.

**********

Trevor’s head should have dislocated from his neck the way he kept craning it to see me with Marissa on the dance floor. He flicked his finger and raised his eyebrows in a non-verbal “See him?” motion, wanting me to acknowledge that I was seeing the guy from earlier.

Oh, I’m seeing him all right. 

Growing up with Juno as an older brother, I had enough practice at getting revenge. Over the years, whether he was picking, teasing, or fighting, I’d do my best to combat it straight-away. But there were times when that wouldn’t work, so I learned to wait. Be patient. Find an opportunity. And what I learned was that revenge was always sweetest when the person was least expecting it.

No doubt, this guy didn’t expect me to brazenly parade his daughter around the floor.

But I could tell by Trevor’s still-widened eyes that he didn’t either.

For the moment, though, he’d have to wait. I set Marissa’s back to him as best I could for our second dance so she wouldn’t notice his stares. I also wanted to keep her moving, hoping to put her father ill at ease.

It had taken a few moments after I first saw Howard Paige for his face to register, but then I remembered seeing it years ago at the insurance office where my mom worked. Waiting at her desk one day while she gathered a few files and ran some copies in the next room, I was approached by Howard as he leaned his hand on the desk and made small talk. I thought it was weird he was interested in me. There were a couple of women I knew from work who my mom would occasionally talk about at home, but this guy’s name didn’t ring any bells. He left before my mother returned from making copies, and I hadn’t thought about that incident again because I assumed he was just a co-worker.

A co-worker who was apparently much more.

So he knew she had a family—or at least knew she had one kid since he was talking to me—but now it was clear he had a family, too. His wife still stood by his side, while his daughter was in my arms.

How does that feel? That was just one of the questions I wished I could ask him, but I still needed to figure out how to work this.

I had been so busy focusing on him that I nearly forgot to look for my own mother. For most of the day, she was mingling with this person or that, finding a seat here or helping herself into an available seat there. She wasn’t spending much time at my father’s side like the other wife I was seeing. In fact, aside from pictures, I couldn’t recall them being in the same frame. Even now, my father was taking a requisite turn dancing with Brandy, while my mom stood around a table to the side of the floor with my aunts, laughing as they jokingly toasted and tipped back glasses of champagne. She would shoot a smile at anyone who looked her way, looking every part the happy mother-of-the-bride.

Poser.    

She’d look perfect in every still photograph that would eventually comprise an album of the day, but I was seeing more: she was posing at every turn, hiding a relationship—or whatever it was—with co-worker Howard and faking the relationship with my father that the camera was catching in meaningless still frames.

Hot, angry air filled my lungs to the point of nearly bursting. I had seen too much between them.

Now I was the one about to breathe fire.

And I needed to get out of there.

I left the dance floor and Marissa behind. Into the quiet May night I ran, a swirl of low-hanging spring clouds and humidity punching me the minute I swung open the hotel entrance door. Fresh air flooded my nostrils and filled my lungs as I gulped in greedy, hungry breaths. The crisp stillness characteristic of the whole region north of the Rio Grande grabbed me in a muggy embrace, and I quickened my pace so that I wouldn’t be seen, unbuttoning my jacket as I ran.

I unlocked my vehicle and opened the door as I whipped off the jacket, slinging it into the back seat. I tugged at my wrists, knowing I’d be more normal if I could just loosen the shirt a bit, but I didn’t know how to work the cuff-links. My stomach twisted with the memory of how Marissa’s fingers had grazed them when I took her into my arms. Short-lived, the whole experience of being with her held a potency that suspended all of the weight of my mother’s secret, but with Marissa no longer there, the floodgates opened in a torrent of feelings I didn’t understand.

Weddings, relationships: they all made me sick.    [END]

Written by

Dead Mule Staff