1: THE BOTHERSOME BRIDE
“We’ll call it Wedding Planner Blues,” said the man in the biker’s jacket.
You’d have said the idea had just struck him that very moment. My guess was he’d been working on it for at least forty-eight hours. You could see he was really pleased with himself for coming up with it.
But Cindy was impressed. At least, she laughed girlishly. I didn’t.
Bikerman’s companion, all open-faced sweetness and freckles, gasped admiringly. I suspected she’d rehearsed it. The two of them were doing the Good Cop, Bad Cop thing. Only they weren’t cops. They were journalists.
Cindy had invited them to tea after their editor called her to suggest an interview. She didn’t tell me until she’d done it. I’d read previous What’s the Point of . . . columns in the Sunday Smart Arse and I was appalled. One journo prosecuted and one defended, at least in theory. I’d as soon have invited a couple of vampires over the threshold.
“They’ll crucify us.”
But the Sunday SA had sold it to Cindy by calling it a balanced approach and she laughed. “You’re so melodramatic, Natty.” She tucked stray hair behind my ear as if she were my mother.
I should probably say here that she is my best friend as well as my boss. She has the open-hearted hopefulness of a five year old and is nearly old enough to be my grandmother. Me? I’m twenty-seven going on ninety. And, in spite of my profession, not a romantic.
I said patiently, “It’s their job.”
Cindy was amused. ‘Naturally. And it’s our job to convert them. Well, one of them. This interview is going to take us global.”
I groaned. ‘Look. This isn’t what we’re used to. The magazine people love us. We’re on the same side. This pair are ambitious journos with an agenda.”
She stayed serene. Cindy is very, very good at serene. At all times. “I know. The editor was quite straight with me.”
Her grey eyes lit with amusement. “No, he was, truly. He said that weddings represented the worst excesses of our society. A nonsense industry, I think he called it. So it’s up to us to prove him wrong.” And she smiled. Serenely.
So here we were, taking tea in the sanctum where we usually interviewed the brides, while Cindy lapped up Bikerman’s bad-boy charm and I scented disaster like muck spreading in May.
Now she uncrossed her still perfect legs, like the lady she was, and leaned forward to pour tea. The cups were the ones we used to impress the clients – paper-thin, gold-rimmed bone china. She gave the first cup to Sweet Face and offered her the pretty milk jug.
Sweet Face juggled china, startled. Cindy smiled sweetly, took the cup away from her and put it down on the coffee table, and followed up with a plate of lemon slices with a thin silver fork for spearing them.
“Or do you prefer lemon?”
Sweet Face learned quickly. She knew an exocet when she saw it coming. She sized up the precarious balance of that fork and went for the milk jug, fast. “Thank you,” she murmured.
She wasn’t going to forgive that, I thought. Oh Cindy, you scored the point but she’ll make us pay!
Bikerman who had clearly seen too many old James Dean movies lounged back in the sofa and curled his lip. He said, too politely, “Some people say the milk should go in first. What do you think, Mrs Grace?”
Cindy gave him her sweetest smile. “Whichever you prefer, of course, Mr Justin. Which would you like?”
So she hadn’t succumbed to the bad-boy charm entirely. Her standard reply is, “Tea first. And then the butler asks milk or lemon, Miss Caroline?” Then she goes off into hoots of laughter like an apoplectic owl.
Suddenly I twigged the reason that she‘d asked them, almost before they sat down, whether they were taping the meeting. They hadn’t liked it but, after a quick look at her companion, Sweet Face had come clean and said yes. And now it fell into place. From that very moment Cindy must have been watching her words, in case some bit of the recording could be taken out of context and used against us.
Almost certainly it was the ambassadorial background. She’d probably been on several courses on how to handle the media. I really should remember never to underestimate Caroline Penelope Grace. I suddenly felt a whole lot more cheerful.
James Dean said he took milk first. It made his point but it was a bit of a damp squib. Round one to the Ambassador’s Lady.
He accepted the cup and slouched deeper into the sofa cushions. “So how did you get into this wedding game?”
It was borderline offensive as it was meant to be. He clearly thought it would get a rise out of her. But I wasn’t worried about that. Cindy has years and years of experience of not taking offence at far tougher customers than the Sunday Smart Arse’s prize jerk. Anyway, weddings are her life. She’s a real believer.
She smiled happily. “No game, Mr Justin. For the couple concerned, it’s their big life-changing moment.”
He snorted. “Throwing a party?”
“Oh it’s much more than a party. We support them through a crisis moment. Everything changes, you see. It can be frightening.”
He exchanged a look with Sweet Face. She bit back a smile and bent her head quickly.
My antennae came onto full alert. Was this a trap?
The man drawled, “Frightening? Bridesmaids, incoming, ten o’clock?”
Cindy smiled at the joke – just. She takes the emotional maelstrom element very seriously indeed. “A wedding can bring up all sorts of issues.”
“I can well believe it. I hear your charges are astronomical.”
That didn’t faze Cindy for a minute. Ladies don’t talk about money, after all.
‘That depends on the kind of wedding, of course. Whatever the couple and their families decide. I always say that we’re there to manage the secondary crises.”
James Dean was getting irritated. ‘Crisis management? That’s a bloody big claim.’
Cindy nodded. Serenely.
“For God’s sake,’ he muttered.
It sounded a bit too heartfelt. I had the feeling he’d gone off script.
“Take away the white lace and pearls and what have you got? Just a souped-up event company.”
Remembering some of our clients, I thought: you should try it some time. But I also remembered to keep my mouth shut and my face expressionless. Just.
Maybe not enough. He swung round on me. “Come on, Natalya. You’re a bright girl.”
“You don’t buy this bullshit, do you?”
Before I could speak, Cindy said, “Natalya is my troubleshooter. She knows more about the traumas and tribulations than anybody.”
He concentrated on me then. His eyes, I saw, were not only narrowed and angry but an uneasy-making shade of greeny-grey. Spy’s eyes. They didn’t quite go with the smouldering, sexy image. Too calculating, if you know what I mean. I didn’t trust him an inch.
He went into a savage imitation of the soupier sort of wedding planner. I have to admit they do exist. “Oh Mr Justin we support our lovely, lovely clients through the trauma of spending a fortune on wedding stationery.” He almost threw the delicate china cup away from him. It would have broken if Cindy’s powder grey carpet hadn’t been so soft and deep. Justin didn’t even notice. “It’s obscene.”
He jumped up and began to stride about the drawing room. Of course, it’s actually Cindy’s office. She lives upstairs, mostly in her large, untidy kitchen. The velvet carpeting, colour-co-ordinated furnishing and soft, soft lighting are strictly for the clients. And I’d seen a surprising number of men pace the floor with exactly the same explosive energy as Tom Justin.
I caught Cindy’s eyes. I could see that we were thinking the same thing: unbridled excess at his own wedding from the sound of it. His resentment still burned too bright. Shouldn’t think he was still married.
The woman stayed perched on the edge of the sofa but she watched him anxiously. “What Tom means,” she said carefully, “is that some of your projects have been a little – well – OTT.”
Cindy raised her eyebrows. She was the picture of hurt surprise. For a woman who had once built a full scale Elfin Grotto for a couple who had met at a Fantasy Convention, it was impressive. You had to admire the chutzpah.
“We call the agency Your Dreams Come True for a reason.”
Then James Dean was back among us, huffing like a bad tempered stallion in need of a gallop. “Very neat, Mrs Grace. Ve – ry neat. Not your excesses. Your clients’ excesses.”
She looked him straight between the eyes and said quietly, “What you have to understand is that there are no agreed forms any more. People create a wedding by consulting their own hearts and dreams.”
She shook her head. “I’m like a plumber, putting in a fountain or fixing a leak. I know how to do stuff because I do it all the time. They’ll only do it once. But they decide what they want.”
But Bikerman was like a terrier. “With a little nudging in the direction of six figures.”
Cindy sighed. “I generally find people know how they want to express their deepest feelings without bankrupting themselves.”
But he wasn’t convinced.
So she fell into the trap. God help me, I’d relaxed. I thought she knew what she was doing. I thought we were past danger point. And then I heard her say, “If you don’t believe me, Mr Justin, go with Natalya this weekend. If the clients don’t object, you can shadow her. See exactly what we do.”
I stared at her in horror. Was she crazy? She knew they wouldn’t object. They were her nephew and his bride, and we were organising it for free. And the whole damn wedding was fraught.
The journalists grabbed the invitation with both hands. It confirmed all my suspicions.
As soon as they’d gone, I said so.
Cindy just laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous, Natty. You were only saying on Monday that you could do with another pair of hands this weekend. I’ve just given them to you.”
I clutched my hair in despair. “I need someone to mind the warring exes. Not Tom Justin, who’ll need minding himself.”
All weddings have their flare points and this one was already fizzing nicely for an explosion on the day. For one thing the bride didn’t want it. A born again backpacker, Sasha joined us for only one consultation, during which her answer to everything was “Too expensive,” or “No.” That is except for:
Colour scheme? – Huh?
Table plan? – Not having a sit down meal.
What’s the groom wearing? – Father’s old dinner jacket (from Mother-in-law)
Ushers outfits? – They’ve probably got suits.
Boutonnières? – Whatever they are we’re not having them
Music? Have you got a friendly band? – I-pod.
So then I asked a question I’d never had to ask before: “Have you got the wedding dress? May I see it?” Sasha said, “No.” Her half-sister, a libel lawyer with a reputation a hammerhead shark would envy, said, “No comment.” And Mother-in-law fled.
I caught up with her later, in Cindy’s kitchen, swigging tea and blotting her smudged eye make-up with kitchen roll.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It just all got too much. Sasha’s mother has her heart set on the full wedding works and the more Sasha resists, the more determined her mother gets. It’s a nightmare.”
The root problem turned out to be the bride’s father. He was a serial marryer.
Sasha, it turned out, was the daughter of Wife No 3 who was trying to bar her immediate predecessor (guilt) and the successor wife (resentment) from the wedding. Having been forced into the kind of wedding she didn’t want, Sasha was determined that no one should be left out. Her mother threw a wobbly. Wife No 5 said she wouldn’t come if Wife No 4 did. Sasha’s father, a charming slitherer-outer, said he couldn’t get involved.
I began to feel more charitable towards Sasha. “Sounds like she’s been to too many family weddings where the grownups were seething with hurt feelings,” I said. “In the circumstances, you can’t really blame her.”
The future mother-in-law brightened. “I suppose not, when you put it like that. And she’s very fond of Kimberly, who’s the daughter of wife number 2. In fact, she’s relented on bridesmaids, as long as Kimberly is the Chief Bridesmaid.”
My heart sank. Kimberly was the hammerhead shark. Bossy as hell and an opinionated perfectionist, if I was any judge. I’d almost have preferred to deal with Sasha, no matter how negative she was feeling. But if you’re a wedding planner you work with what you get.
I got warring exes. No 1 wife didn’t reply. According to Kimberly that meant she was quite likely to turn up and make a scene. She had done it before. No 2, Kimberly’s mother, sent a warm note of congratulation, a generous wedding present and a charming refusal because she was going to be in the Caribbean on the Day. No 4 accepted.
And now here was Cindy suggesting the two journos could be pressed into service to help? They were much more likely to stir up even more trouble. Tom Justin would look on warring ex-wives as a god-sent bonus to add spice to his story.
“You’ve got to stop those two coming. I’m not letting Justin anywhere near the family.”
“Don’t waste him on the exes, chicken. He’s gorgeous.” Cindy’s eyes gleamed. She can be surprisingly predatory sometimes.
“He has a husky voice, artfully tousled hair and a sneer. He’s a cliché.”
“I think he’s cute.”
Tom Justin was not cute. He was beautiful. And bad.
Yes, I know some women are fascinated by bad boys. Hell, it was working on Cindy and she was a woman of taste, discretion and wide experience and old enough to be his mother. But a guy channelling James Dean did nothing for me but piss me off.
I said so. Well, not the bit about him being beautiful. Obviously.
She laughed. “If you let them get at him, the step-mamas will lap him up. Trust me on this.”
I ground my teeth. “I shall have to watch every damn thing I say. And stop your journalists starting World War III because it’d be good copy. You’ll be off with the guests, enjoying yourself. and I’ll be all on my own. I am not trained for this.”
She laughed. “You’ll be fine. Live a little.”
The wedding was in a pleasant London suburb. OK, the church was Victorian and too big and the back-packing bride despised the Pre-Raphaelite stained glass saints. She said they were droopy.
But at least there were leafy trees, plenty of parking and a mere forty-minute journey by train from Town. We wedding planners always look on the bright side. As I pointed out to the bride’s tearful mother, when she discovered that her daughter was going to walk down the aisle in a slinky eau-de-nil satin dress she had bought off the peg.
“And I thought you were dealing with that.” She managed to wail and accuse at the same time.
I curbed the temptation to point out that, left to herself, Sasha would have stuck with jeans and a cotton shirt. It had taken considerable diplomacy to get her into a long dress and heels. I thought I deserved a medal. Instead I said she would look beautiful, which was true. And then the hairdresser and make-up artist arrived at the parental home, and I made my escape to the church.
Tom Justin was waiting for me. Damn. At least he had followed my suggestion and come dressed as a wedding guest, albeit of the more louche sort. There was no sign of his companion.
“She couldn’t make it. Family emergency,” he said fluently.
I was annoyed. He could at least have offered her apologies. He had not even tried to make it sound genuine.
Kimberly, Bossy Chief Bridesmaid, was there, too, ostensibly finishing the church flowers but in reality checking up on me.
And then, inevitably, the first crisis hit. Not an ex-wife, actually. Charlie’s Best Man. Allegedly a highly talented director of wildlife films and clearly a really good friend, Patrick Fane was the least organised best man I’d ever encountered.
Kimberly brought him into my operations centre in the vestry. I say brought. She marched him in like a Sergeant Major escorting a prisoner. From Patrick Fane’s look of mulish endurance, that’s what it felt like, too.
“I’m really sorry, Natalya,” he said, half agonisingly embarrassed, half hopeful that I would make everything better. He gestured to his face.
Why on earth do they call it a black eye? It’s not black, it’s purple. Very dark purple with ominous threads of scarlet in the mix and a bloom of thunder-sky grey round the edges. It looked painful but that wasn’t my problem.
It was going to look like hell on Instagram and Facebook. And that was my problem.
I inspected the damage. That bruising was way beyond the capacity of the concealer I had in my emergency kit. Fortunately I had the make-up artist on speed dial. Nigel would just have to leave the bride and her mother to shift for themselves. This was an emergency. I texted him.
Tom Justin wandered over as I was explaining my thinking to Kimberly and Patrick.
“You have noticed he’s bleeding, haven’t you?” Tom interrupted me. He sounded a bit shaken.
“Yes.” I was whipping through my emergency kit for the first aid pack. “I can deal with cuts and abrasions. Skin closures and then plastic skin spray. Sit down, Patrick.”
I extracted them from the kit and got busy with antiseptic wipes and cotton wool. He bore it very well.
“You wassock, Patrick,” said the Bossy Bridesmaid dispassionately. “What on earth did you think you were doing?”
OK, she was a high powered international lawyer, with a side order of Head Girl and control issues. But she was saying what I, the ice-cream-cool professional wedding planner, could not. You tell him Kimberly, I thought.
“I fell over in the bathroom,” said Patrick. He didn’t even try to make it sound convincing.
I saw that his dress shirt was torn and there were spots of blood on the natty waistcoat underneath his morning coat. A fight, no question. Possibly more than one. It would have taken time for that shiner to emerge. He must have started before breakfast.
My instinct for doom went onto red alert. What sort of state was Charlie the Bridegroom in?
“How bad’s the other guy?” asked Kimberly, clearly coming to the same conclusions.
Not the right question.
“Was it Charlie?” I demanded urgently. “Can he still walk?”
Underneath my ministering fingers, Patrick’s face was going a pretty shade of pink. “No, no. Charlie doesn’t know anything about it. Well, not about this morning, anyway.”
It was even more unconvincing than his bathroom tumble. The moment I’d finished with the spray-on skin, I dialled the bridegroom.
He answered at once. “Hello?” He sounded distracted but not paralytic.
So I probably wouldn’t have to ferry the bridegroom to Casualty and then explain to the bride’s mother. Phew!
“Hi Charlie. It’s Natalya. Just wondering how things are going.”
That didn’t sound so promising. Stay calm, I told myself. Stay calm. “Problems?”
He moaned. “I’ve lost my best man. Nobody knows where he is.”
Phew again. This was turning into my lucky day.
“Don’t worry. He’s at the church with me.”
“But he’s got the rings.”
Ah. Well, I’d known it couldn’t be that easy, hadn’t I?
Looking at Patrick’s disarray, I thought the location of the rings was debatable. But I was not saying that to Charlie. Well not until I had to. “I’ll sort that out for you. He needs a bit of – er – repair work just at the moment.”
Charlie Harkness swore. “And I asked him to be my best man because he’s always so calm. Would you believe I’ve seen that man chat up a bunch of hostile warriors armed with poisoned blowpipes and walk out of the jungle with a smile?”
Charlie was a professional wild life photographer. Now I realised that he and Patrick must work together.
“Weddings can do that. Bring out the latent lunatic in surprising people.”
Charlie snorted. “I’ll finish getting dressed and be right over.”
He cut the call just as a text arrived from Nigel the make-up man: On my way. And the door to the vestry opened and a couple of small boys bundled in and stopped dead, staring at Patrick’s bruises with a good deal of respect. A man in some sort of robes followed, and then four or five more.
“Choir,” said Kimberly in a voice of despair. “Now what?”
A new source of potential leaks to Facebook presented itself. “Make sure no one’s taken any photos,” I hissed at her. “I’ll get Patrick away. Send Nigel over to the Church Hall when he gets here.”
Head Girl or not, she knew it was no time to argue. She picked up the baton like a pro. “Right.”
She surged over and began to charm the boys and the choirmaster without difficulty. Ex Wife No 3 claimed that Kimberly had always been jealous of Sasha. Looking at her now, I thought: nope I don’t think so.
I shoved all my stuff back into the emergency kit, looped it over my shoulder, and said crisply to the men, “Follow me.”
They did. Patrick seemed a bit unsteady at first, but then Tom Justin put an unobtrusive arm under his elbow. We tore up the path across a space of lawn to the hall. Thankfully it was unlocked.
“Good thinking Batwoman,” Tom Justin said, once we were inside. “How did you know about this place?”
“Checked out the grounds when Sasha’s mother first brought me to meet the vicar.”
He looked unforgivably amused. “Of course you did. I should have thought of that. Military reconnaissance a speciality.”
I could have hit him. Superior bastard.
A woman came out from the kitchen and stopped dead when she saw us. Not so surprising. Patrick was looking alarmingly pale after his fifty yard dash and the cut above his eye was beginning too ooze again. I’ve seen zombies who looked better.
Tom eased him into a chair, while I swung the emergency kit off my shoulder. “Maybe a cup of tea?” he said to the woman. “With sugar?’
“Shock,” she said, nodding kindly. “Of course.” She shot back into the kitchen.
I extracted lint and pressed it down really firmly on Patrick’s cut. “Head wounds always bleed a lot,” I said, as much to reassure myself as him.
Tom Justin meanwhile had brought out his small pocket camera.
“Oh no, you don’t,” I said, trying to keep myself between the lens and Patrick’s poor wounded face.
But Tom wasn’t photographing Patrick. He was tumbling things out of the kit and clicking away rapidly as he did so. He stopped dead at one and picked it up, inspecting it from every side with apparent incredulity. “What the hell? Are those wire cutters?”
“Secateurs.” I tried not to sound frosty but I could have done without the audience participation. Preparing myself to plunge into the wedding day requires a Zen Master’s concentration at the best of times. Today didn’t begin to qualify as one of those. “In case anything goes wrong with one of the big flower arrangements. When I have more time, I’ll be happy to take you through the contents.”
“Hell, when you say crisis, you really mean crisis, don’t you? Wire cutters, forsooth!”
The kind woman brought tea for Patrick and he knocked it back like medicine. I was glad to see he’d got some colour back in his face. I took an inventory of the state of his clothes. There was bright blood on his shirt which would probably come out if I sponged it with cold water and then took the hair dyer to it. I was more worried about the stains on the waistcoat and cravat. If they were silk, I might just be in trouble.
I elbowed Tom Justin out of the way and mined my supplies again.
“How are you feeling now, Patrick?”
“Better, thank you.” He sounded a bit ashamed of himself, poor chap.
I hardened my heart. This was no time for sentimentality. “Good. Get your shirt off.”
Tom Justin choked. “What?”
It was a distraction I didn’t need. “Shut up,’ I said, quite nicely given the circumstances. “I need to get rid of those bloodstains.”
He blinked. And then he drawled, “You’re a real bully, aren’t you?”
Astonishingly, it hurt. Even though I knew he must be deliberately trying to wind me up to get some reaction for his horrible newspaper article, it hurt. I banked the wound for licking later and found Patrick was staring at me too. I snapped my fingers at the pair of them. “Quick smart. Shirt. Waistcoat. Now.”
Patrick stared down at himself and seemed to see the blood for the first time. “Good God.”
He began to struggle out of his clothes, got into a terrible tangle and then just stood there, with shirt and coat locked at ear-height., unable to move, eyes wild. He was making little panting noises halfway between a grunt and a groan.
I started toward him but Tom Justin justified his existence at last. He strolled over and pulled the coat down so that Patrick could breathe again. “The secret is to undo the tie first,” he said kindly.
Patrick stood still while Tom drew off coat and waistcoat in one smooth move. Then Patrick wrestled the cravat off as if it was choking him and threw it aside. He managed to drag the shirt over his own head.
He looked a lot better without his shirt. Good musculature and, interestingly, no discernible bruises. If it hadn’t been for that torn shirt, I’d have said that someone must have hit him full in the face just once and then – what? Given up? Been restrained by the bar staff? Fallen over in a drunken stupor?
I admit I was intrigued. Given the black eye and the blood spatters, I’d have expected wider physical damage. Did it matter? Not unless his opponent was someone else crucial to the wedding.
“Who did you have that fight with?” I asked.
But Kimberly came in then, talking over her shoulder as she did so. ” – in here, I suppose. Natalya said – ” She turned and stopped dead. It wasn’t me she was looking at. “Oh!”
Yup, a lot better without his shirt.
Nigel appeared at her shoulder, his professional holdall in his hand. It was massive.
“Where’s this cage fighter then?” he said with a grin.
I introduced him to Patrick and Tom Justin. Kimberly seemed incapable of speech. For the first time since I’d met her.
Nigel started out doing his campest chorus-boy imitation but when he actually focused on Patrick’s bruises, he stopped joking and let out a low whistle. “That’s a nasty cut above your eye. Have you seen a doctor, Patrick?”
Nigel, I realised, was a nicer person than I am.
Fortunately Patrick shared my priorities. He was surprisingly staunch, too. “No time.”
I did feel a slight twinge of guilt at that point, I admit. Patrick had not got much sympathy from either Kimberly or me. “If you’re still feeling rotten, I’ll take you to A&E myself,” I promised. “After the wedding.”
Kimberly cleared her throat. “I’ll do that.”
Patrick stared at her, clearly suspicious.
She didn’t blush exactly but she did look a bit awkward. ‘Only if you want, of course.”
Nigel prowled round him, making him turn with the light. “Look, I can’t just paint it out,” he said at last. “It’s too intense. I’ll take the colour down, I’ve got some excellent stuff I’ve used on port wine stains. But I’m afraid that after that, I’m going to have to do the rest of your face as well. Otherwise it’ll show in the photos.”
I expected a protest but Patrick was watching Kimberly. “Do whatever you have to,” he said absently.
So I laundered and repaired his clothes and Nigel gave him a maquillage worthy of the Sun King. And when we were nearly done, I said in a careful, this-is-not-an-accusation tone, “By the way, do you have the rings, Patrick?”
He jumped and stopped looking at Kimberly. “Hell. I don’t know. Waistcoat pocket maybe? Can’t remember.”
He looked. We all looked. He hadn’t got them.
“It’s OK.” I said soothingly. “You just need to give me a run down on everything you’ve done since Charlie gave you the rings. Where you went. Who you – er – tangled with. Take your time.”
It was supposed to be calming but Patrick looked positively hunted. Mind you, some of that could be down to Nigel, bending over him dabbing and brushing and blending. And muttering to himself like a mad magician all the while.
Tom Justin said lazily, “I’d spit it out, if I were you. She’s gonna get it out of you sooner or later. Might as well get it over.”
He took Tom’s advice. It was quite simple really. He hadn’t been in a fight. Hadn’t even tried to defend himself. His opponent was a woman.
Kimberly, Nigel and I all had the same reaction.
Tom Justin looked smug. “Look at that nick above his eyebrow. That’s a backhand swing from a hand wearing a ring with a large square cut stone, if ever I saw one. Not a lot of men wear rings like that. And she had a go at ripping the shirt off his back.”
Patrick nodded. He looked wretched but he told us the full story. The previous evening he and Charlie had come across a weeping woman, getting steadily sozzled in the bar of their hotel. Her man had done her wrong and now nobody loved her.
“Charlie ran out of patience. But – well I couldn’t help feeling there but for the grace of God go any of us. So I helped the night manager get her back to her room, gave her a large glass of water and legged it.”
“Legged it?” That was Kimberly, sounding as if she had the cogs of a very large chainsaw lodged in her vocal chords.
Patrick nodded. “She wasn’t comatose or anything. Just tight and sad.”
“What did she look like?”
He stared at her. “What do you mean?”
She snapped her fingers impatiently, returning to form. “Age, colour of hair, eyes, complexion. Height. Style.”
He looked helpless.
Kimberly clicked her tongue. “How would you describe her if she were an orang-utan?”
“Oh. Sort of smallish but quite solid. Streaky hair, grey eyes, waved her hands around a lot.”
Kimberly looked at me. “Wife No 1,” she said. “My mother’s predecessor. The woman still broods. I knew that. I should have seen this coming and done something about it. I’m so sorry, Patrick, Natalya. This is my father’s fault.”
But Patrick said, ‘You mean it wasn’t because she thought I’d – er – behaved like a cad?”
Kimberly shook her head violently. “She probably didn’t even remember she’d met you before. She saw you dressed up and must have thought you were the bridegroom. So she just hit out because she wanted to hurt someone at the wedding. And she couldn’t get at my father.”
Patrick let out a great puff of relief. “Thank the Lord. Poor soul, though.”
Kimberly was watching him with a curious little smile. “That’s it? Poor soul?'”
He looked worried. “She was really unhappy.”
Kimberly said slowly, “I think you’re a hero.”
He didn’t take it seriously, of course. He laughed. But I knew. And Kimberly knew I knew.
We called the hotel and asked them to search the breakfast room. They found the little pouch with the rings in it under Patrick’s table. They gave it to Charlie.
Kimberly drove Nigel back to resume his duties to the bridal party. She still had to get ready herself, after all.
After that, I got on with all the practical things I do at weddings that are now second nature to me. Tom Justin followed me round, clicking away and muttering into his phone sometimes. I tried not to let it distract me. Mostly I succeeded.
But at the reception I remembered what Cindy had said about putting the journos to work.
“How would you feel about schmoozing the abandoned wives?”
He didn’t turn me down flat. He just looked at me for a little too long and then said, “Why?”
“Well, I think Patrick will feel honour-bound to dance with Wife No 1 and it seems a bit unfair.”
“Ah.” Those inscrutable spy’s eyes looked momentarily disconcerted. “In that case, I’ll give it a go.”
He came back, grinning from ear to ear. “For once your instincts let you down, Field Marshall Natalya. Patrick is not at risk from her.”
“She says she knows all about metrosexuals but she’s old-fashioned and she really is a bit put off by men who wear make-up.”
My mouth dropped open. I couldn’t help it. And then, of course, I began to laugh. I couldn’t help that either.
“Not as ridiculous as you standing here tapping your I-pad while the band plays boogie. Put that thing down and dance with me.”
I did. I quite enjoyed it. I even stayed with him when the tempo slowed, the lights dimmed and the last dance was called. I drifted around the small floor in Tom Justin’s arms, surrounded by lovers and the last, tired guests and thought of absolutely nothing.
Until he said, “Will you tell me something?”
I retained just enough survival instinct to say, “It depends.”
“To settle a bet I’ve made with myself. How did you talk Sasha into that dress?”
“I didn’t. She went shopping with Kimberly.”
He nodded, undeterred. “OK. How did you talk her into going shopping for a dress with Kimberly?”
I hauled off from him. “Off the record?”
“Entirely for my own private satisfaction.”
It was a risk, but what the hell? If he printed it, it wasn’t the end of the world. And it was too good a wheeze not to share with someone. I was proud of myself.
I subsided back into his arms and said dreamily, “I pointed out that when Charlie won an award for his photography she wouldn’t have to have to rush out and buy a dress for the awards ceremony if she already had one.”
“Nice one,” was all he said.
In the end, the whole piece was much kinder than we could have hoped for. In the end, Tom Justin wrote the whole thing himself, not like prosecutor and defence, but as if he were a traveller in a very foreign country where he didn’t speak the language. The tone was bewildered but amused at himself as much as us.
He finished, “Wedding planners see a lot, are unfailingly upbeat and the soul of discretion. It’s not a bad code to live by.”
And my lapse on my confidentiality obligations? Not a whisper.
Very classy, Tom Justin.
The Bothersome Bride © Sophie Weston 2016