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During the reception, Letty kept an eye on her mom and wondered if anyone else could read the tension running just below her mom’s courteous and lovely façade. From the guests, Letty thought she caught pitying stares, curious fascination, and whispered undertones. When a few people came right out and asked about her father, Letty tried not to bristle. She wanted to mimic her mom’s breezy grace, but she felt wooden or mechanical, as if she were a mannequin or a wind-up toy programmed to act a certain way and repeat a memorized script.
Then she spotted Leo with a beautiful blonde clinging to his arm. Had Harper or Chet invited him? She hadn’t noticed him at the wedding. Could he have accidentally stumbled into the party? Unlikely.
She watched him, wondering what she had ever seen in him. Sure, he was handsome in a Ryan Gosling sort of way and could be charming. It embarrassed her that it had taken her so long to see beneath his swanky façade.
And who was the Barbie on his arm? With her too-perky boobs and centipede eyelashes, she looked as manufactured as artificial turf.
Letty rubbed her forehead, willing her brewing headache to go away, and turned away before Leo could catch her spying on him.
“Letty!” Leo called out.
“Leo!” Letty feigned surprise and shot Harper a nasty glance.
Harper, who was mingling with the guests, responded with an apologetic smile and slight shrug.
Leo navigated through the crowd and weaved between the tables and chairs so he could wrap his arms around Letty. She inhaled his familiar scent and broke free as soon as she could.
“Letty, this is Jerry.” He put his hand on the blonde’s shoulder. “She’s Chet’s cousin.” He lifted his eyebrow. “Small world, huh?”
Jerry captured Letty’s hand. “Wasn’t this just the most beautiful ceremony? And the setting! Of course, an outdoor wedding is always risky! I’m a wedding planner, you know.” She waved her hand. “But I wasn’t offended in the least when Harper went with Donald. I was relieved, actually. Working with family can be so tricky. And then I heard about your family’s financial hiccups. And well,” she wiped her forehead with the back of her hand as if wiping a sweaty brow, “Whew! I knew I had dodged a bullet.”
Leo had the grace to look embarrassed. “How is your dad?”
Letty planted her shoes into the lawn to keep herself from kicking both of them in the shins. “He’s doing well,” she said in a falsely bright voice. “And how’s your mom?”
He shifted from foot to foot and ran a finger around his collar. “She’s doing better,” he said. “She’s hoping to come home soon.”
Jerry shot him a questioning glance, but Leo refused to meet her gaze.
Letty thought about mentioning the rehab center, Leo’s mom’s second home, but decided not to stoop to his level. “It was nice to see you, again Leo, and to meet you, Jerry.”
Jerry brightened. “If you’re in need of an event planner, call me.” She slapped her forehead. “But—won’t you be planning a broker’s open house soon?”
“You would need to talk to my mom about that,” Letty said. “Excuse me.” Knowing she couldn’t take one more minute of feigning sweetness and light, she slipped away.
The reception had been held on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Now that the sun was fading into a pink puddle on the horizon and strings of outdoor lights were flickering on, Letty hoped to find a place where she could slip out of her awful shoes and enjoy the gathering dark.
She wandered down the path until she spotted a bench overlooking the ocean. The sky and sea had turned to the same steely gray, making it impossible to tell where one ended and the other began.
Gloaming, her grandmother’s word for twilight—that brief between time after the sun had set but the moon had yet to rise. Her grandmother had a song about it. Something about two lovers “lovely roamin’ in the gloaming.’”
“You okay?” Claris’s voice startled Letty.
She jumped to her feet and turned to her best friend for a hug. “Did you see Leo?”
“And his latest flavor of the month.” Claris pulled away and swept a searching glance over Letty.
“What did I ever see in him?” Letty sank back onto the bench and pulled Claris down beside her. They were similar in size but different in almost every other way. Letty had her dad’s dark hair and eyes while Claris was a classic beach Barbie. In high school, they used to call themselves the Oreo team.
“He’s not so bad,” Claris said.
“Yes, he is. All men are bad,” Letty pronounced.
Claris elbowed her. “You don’t mean that.”
“I hate men almost as much as I hate these shoes.” Letty lifted her feet to show Claris the pink satin strappy heels Harper had made her wear.
“They’re not as bad as my dress.” Claris plucked at her skirt.
“No one made you wear it.”
“I know, but what with UCS’s tuition hike, I couldn’t ask my parents for one more penny, and this dress was free.”
“Anything left in Courtney’s closet is fair game. Her rules, not mine.”
“Do we need to get back? I don’t want to miss the sendoff.”
“I think we still have a minute.”
“Good.” Letty wiggled her toes and followed Claris’s glance over her shoulder at the Montlake monstrosity. The hotel’s lights shimmered in the fading dusk. Music from the reception floated over the rise. Out on the water, a few boats bobbed along the horizon.
“For most people, this is the stuff of fairytales,” Claris said.
“I feel like my mom and I are being booted out of paradise and the only home I’ve ever known.”
“Because of your dad?”
Letty nodded. “Mom’s talking of going to Arizona to live with Marmmy. Harper and Chet are moving to New York. Leaving just me in my tiny Irvine apartment.”
“I love your place. It’s cozy.”
“Cozy is just another word for small.” But Letty also loved her place. It was a two-story, twenty-unit complex with gray and white siding and bright red doors. “I love nursing, but the pay barely covers my rent. Now that Harper’s moving out, I’ll have to pick up another shift if I want to buy food.” She clenched her jaws to keep the tears at bay and struggled to regain control of her anger to keep from dissolving into tears. But the sound of clattering roused her from her funk.
“Wh-What’s that about?” Claris stammered.
Standing, Letty tried to ignore her aching feet. When she realized the shouting and cursing seemed to be coming from the wedding reception, she took off running as best she could in her high-heeled satin shoes. Claris jogged beside her down the path and over the bluff.
A beagle stood on the table, wolfing down the wedding cake while the guests tried to fight their giggles and Donald and his team flapped their arms and screamed expletives.
A man in dripping wet swimming trunks and not much else dashed through the party, knocking over chairs and bumping off guests as he scrambled toward the dog. “Sorry! Sorry! Excuse me!” He lunged for the table and pulled the beagle to the ground. A floral garland caught around the dog’s paws and soon the man and beagle were tangled in the string of flowers. With his naked chest and garland, the man looked like he could pose as a statue of a Greek god.
“Who is that?” Claris breathed.
Letty bit back a curse. “I don’t know, but he and that mutt just ruined my sister’s wedding.”
“You’re right,” Claris whispered. “We should be outraged, but holy crow, he’s beautiful.”
“And I bet he knows it.” Letty marched over to the man, planted herself in front of him, and released the anger she’d been storing up for the past two months. “Get that creature out of here!”
“I’m trying.” He juggled the dog, who made another leap for the table. “That must be some amazing cake.”
“Yeah. My mom stayed up all night making it and now look at it! It’s dog chow.”
“No, it’s gorgeous. At least that part is.” He waved at the untouched-by-dog-lips side of the cake.
Tears gathered in Letty’s eyes as she remembered all her mom’s hard work. But then she heard laughter. Stunned, she turned to watch her mom melt into tears and giggles and fall onto a nearby chair. Mom hiccoughed, spread her legs, grabbed her belly, and laughed some more.
Was she drunk? Oh please, don’t let her be drunk. Letty didn’t think she could handle one more ounce of humiliation.
Many of the guests followed Mom’s example. Sniggers, guffaws, and laughter floated around Letty. Jerry didn’t even try to control her giggling. Leo, at least, looked embarrassed for her.
The man with the dog grinned, but his smile only fueled Letty’s rising anger. She stepped in so the tips of her satin shoes were perfectly aligned with his bare toes, peered into his eyes, and pushed his chest.
Obviously stunned, he dropped the dog, stumbled back as if Letty had zapped him, and stared at her. Their brief physical contact had sent an electrical current sizzling between them. Did he feel it, too?
“Oh no you don’t!” Claris sprang for the cake-lusting dog and caught it by the collar.
“Claris! Your dress!” Letty called out.
Claris sank to the grass, her legs splayed out in front of her, the dog with its frosting-smeared fur wriggling in her lap. “It’s okay. It’s an off-the-rack.”
The man unwrapped himself from the garland and grinned at Claris. “Here, give her to me.” He glanced around. “I wonder what happened to her leash.”
A college friend of Harper’s came running up, holding the leash in her extended hand like a banner. “I found it!”
A distinguished-looking older gentleman carrying a briefcase and wearing a bowtie appeared. “She must have slipped out of it.” The man took the proffered leash and clipped it onto the dog’s collar. “Hey, it’s a chocolate cake. Do you think it will make her sick?”
As if to answer the question, the dog hunched over and vomited all over Letty’s feet. A warm dampness seeped through the thin satin shoes. Frozen in horror, Letty could only stare at the mess.
“Oh look, here come Harper and Chet!” Mom pointed a wavering finger at the couple emerging from the side of the hotel. “Nobody say anything to them about the cake! Grab the sparklers!”
Claris jumped to her feet to help Mom distribute the sparklers and matches while Letty shook herself from her stupor, stepped out of the vomit, and slipped off her shoes. She wrinkled her nose as she picked up the dripping shoes and carried them to a trashcan. After dropping them in, she tried to collect her thoughts and wrap her anger around her like a protective cloak. It had momentarily slipped when she’d laid her hands on that man’s naked chest, but she could and would muster it back.
The man and dog trailed after her. “Again, I’m really sorry.”
“Yeah, well, so am I.” She glanced over her shoulder at the line forming for her sister’s sendoff. “This was supposed to be the happiest day of my sister’s life and your dog just made it disgusting.”
“How can I make it up to you, and your sister, of course?”
“Good question.” She waved her arm at the destroyed table where half the cake had been turned into a mountain of mush. The bulk of the flowers had been cast to the ground, but shredded petals and leaves scattered the once-pristine white tablecloth like dying corpses on a battlefield.
“Can I pay for a new cake?”
“Oh yeah, good idea.” She sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “Because we’ll need a new wedding cake tomorrow.” Sarcasm in her voice dripped like vomit from silky shoes.
“You don’t need to be bitchy.”
She planted her fists on her hips, even though she longed to touch him again. As an experiment. Just to see if that sizzle would return. “And you don’t need to be here.”
He bit his lip. “Right. I don’t.” And he stalked away while the dog limped after him.