1 The Bride’s Bouncer
It was during the first round of photos galore when Cate Padgett decided that her fake smile hurt as badly as the tight underwear she’d been wearing all day. Hours of photographs in front of Founders Chapel made her face feel frozen and tight, her jaws permanently clenched, her cheekbones forever lifted.
Furthermore, an unyielding wedge had been tormenting her for what seemed like days. She stole a look over her shoulder just to make sure her gown wasn’t sandwiched between her cheeks. It was only her granny-style underwear that was causing such discomfort. She would’ve sacrificed two cocktails at the reception for a moment of privacy to alleviate the problem.
Just when she thought she had a shot at freedom, the photographer called her name again. “Catie, we need you again, dear.” She’d been hollering it all afternoon.
At moments she’d been tempted to grumble, “It’s Cate, Vicky,” but decided that might ruin the atmosphere.
Nerves were already on edge. It was ninety degrees in San Diego. Besides being hot and stuffed in very uncomfortable clothing, the whole bridal party was hungry and anxious.
This was her third time as a bridesmaid. Being a veteran, she expected discomfort and stress throughout the wedding preparations and knew how important it was not to be an accessory to conflict.
“Catie,” she called again. “We need one with you”
“She goes by Cate,” Sarah said.
“Oh! Ha! My bad,” Vicky said in between squeals.
Cate squeezed Sarah’s shoulder as she moved close to her for the hundredth time. She was careful not to incite catastrophe by snagging her veil or accidentally smearing makeup on her white gown.
“Okay, Cate. Good. I need you to leave your arm around Sarah. . . . Oh yeah. Perfect! Beautiful just like that. Tilt your chin a tad to the left. A little more. Now scoot your front forward. Lift your forehead and think of parties.”
There was something very unnatural about all this.
“Yeah, perfect!” Vicky called. “Right like that! Smile! Beautiful.” The camera snapped. “Now, don’t go too far,” Vicky called as Cate stalked across the sidewalk. “We’ll be needing you again for the group shots. Oh! And bridesmaids: Don’t lose your bouquets!”
She had just managed to squeeze into a small, private section of shade when her name was called again. She looked at Vicky and her assistant, but it wasn’t either of them. They were shooting Sarah with the flower girl.
“Cate.” There it was again, faint and male. “Psst. Cate. Over here.”
She spun to the left.
“No. Behind you,” the voice said.
She turned around and faced a bougainvillea bush. B. J. Nichols, a groomsman she recalled drinking heavily with in college, weaseled in between the red-flowered branches.
“What are you doing?” she asked. She could feel her satin gown sticking to her damp backand that wedge. If she ever wanted to torture someone, she knew how.
“Cate, we have a problem.”
“Claude is here.”
“I’m not kidding. He’s here, and I think he’s drunk. He’s sitting in the church, right now, as we speak.”
“You have to tell him to leave.”
“He won’t leave,” B. J. said between gritted teeth.
“Can’t you get another groomsman to help you?”
“We’ve all tried. He won’t listen to anyone. Besides, we’re supposed to be seating people right now.” He adjusted his bow tie. “He’s turned hostile, Cate. And you know him better than any of us. You’ve gotta help.”
“Does Miles know?”
“No! Are you kidding? He’ll kick his ass!”
“You can’t just throw him out?”
“He’s telling the organist to play ‘Friends in Low Places,’ Cate. He won’t leave.”
“Catie! Yoohoo! It’s group picture time.”
Cate pretended not to hear her.
“Give me two minutes,” she whispered to B. J. Straightening her dress, she headed back to the fountain.
Why did wedding predicaments always gravitate toward her? Two years ago, crisis struck at her sister’s wedding when a fellow bridesmaid had spilled a glass of red wine down the front of her peach gown. Cate had remembered that white wine neutralized red wine, so she immediately sent an usher for Pinot Grigio. She poured the wine on her dress, blotted it, and hung the gown under the hand dryer in the ladies’ room for a solid ten minutes. Then they made sure that the girl held her bouquet in precisely the right place to cover the faint traces of red wine.
However, she never imagined she’d have to remove the bride’s ex-boyfriend from the chapel only minutes before they were supposed to walk down the aisle.
As she stood in front of the camera, she became uncomfortably aware of the look of alarm that had replaced her fake smile. She tried to think of parties instead of that dipshit Claude Mitchum singing Garth Brooks in front of all of Sarah’s friends and family. How was she going to get him out of Founders Chapel? She debated telling Sarah’s dad, Mr. Cross. But he was having a moment, teary-eyed, choked up, and totally emotional about giving his youngest daughter away.
“Good Lord,” she muttered between her teeth as the last picture was snapped.
Founders Chapel was full of familiar faces when she entered. Old friends from college and relatives of Miles’s and Sarah’s filled the wooden pews, thumbing through their wedding programs.
The Spanish Renaissance church was a landmark at the University of San Diego. It had been one of her favorite places to seek solitude when she’d attended USD. But she didn’t have time to admire its serene beauty now.
B. J. was escorting an elderly couple down the aisle and shot her a nervous look. She scanned the chapel but didn’t see Claude anywhere. Maybe he had left. That’s when she noticed B. J. aggressively nodding his head in the direction of the organ.
There he was. Sitting in the Reserved for the Family row, just inches away from the organist. He was arguing with her.
She took a deep breath and headed toward the front row, trying to blend in with the other guests. The pew felt hard as she slid in next to him.
“Cate! Wow. This is really going to be a college reunion. You look . . . great!”
The alcohol on his breath would’ve burned her nose hairs if she had been any closer. He was dressed for the occasion in a suit. A pant leg was ripped at the knee, and he had buttoned his shirt in the wrong order.
“Claude. What are you doing?” she whispered.
“Praying,” he said nonchalantly as he glanced at the gold altar.
“Claude, you know you weren’t invited. You can’t stay here.”
His jaw grew tight. “Excuse me. But this church is a public place.”
“Claude.” She gave him a look her mother would’ve used when discussing credit card debt. “You’re not here to pray.”
“I want to talk to Sarah. I have to tell her something.”
“What do you need to tell her?”
“Do you really think anything you say now is going to change her mind?” she said, aware that her voice had risen.
“I know it will.”
“How? What do you think is so important that it will stop Sarah from marrying Miles?”
“I have to tell her that I’m different now. I’ve changed and I nevernot for one daystopped loving her.” A ripple of agony tore over his face. His mouth became contorted, as if he were going to scream or cry. She couldn’t tell which and prayed it wasn’t either one. “Oh God, Cate. I love her more than anything. If she needed a kidney, I would give it to her. I never meant to hurt her.”
Cate wanted to remind him that he wasn’t offering his internal organs when he slept with Dina Samley behind Sarah’s back. “She’s about to walk down the aisle and marry someone else. She doesn’t care about what happened anymore. I know she’s forgiven you. You have to move on, too.”
“I can’t let her do this,” he said. “I love her. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me, and I blew it. I was young and stupid.”
She almost felt sorry for him. Nothing looked worse than regret on anyone’s face. Four years ago, at twenty-two, he’d been one of the most desirable bachelors she knew. However, the bulge that hung over his belt had since altered his sex appeal. Dried blood covered his knee where his pants were ripped, and she noticed that the back of his hand was bleeding as well. He needed a Band-Aid.
“Claude, please don’t do this to her. You’re only hurting her more by doing this.”
“You know, Cate? I like you and all, but I really think you should mind your own business.”
The nerve of the little prick. “You are making a huge mistake and a fool out of yourself. You’ve had too much to drink. You will regret this tomorrow.”
He shrugged. “I don’t care. It’s something I have to do, and nothing is going to stop me.”
She glanced at the clock, her mind grasping for a strategy. Ten more minutes until the wedding. What could she do? Call the police and
have him removed from the wedding? It would cause an unforgettable scene and ruin Sarah’s wedding day.
At the moment, she just needed to get him out of the church. If she could relocate him to another area of the campus and stall him, she’d figure out what to do from there.
“All right, Claude. I think I can arrange for you to talk to her. She might be interested in what you have to say.” She was lying in church.
“Yes. But it has to be in private. Not here.” God, what was she doing? She felt like the middleman in a Mafia drug ring. “Listen. We have to hurry before the wedding starts. It might be hard to get Sarah to talk to you if we wait too long. Do you know where the men’s room is on the east side of Camino Hall?”
“Go over there and wait inside. I’ll send Sarah.”
He left the pew before she did.
She waited a few minutes, so it would seem like she was actually going to get Sarah. It would take a few minutes to walk to Camino Hall anyway. She had deliberately sent him to a bathroom in a different building, so he wouldn’t attract attention to himself or run into a guest he knew from the wedding.
She turned to the organist. “Excuse me. Do you have a Band-Aid by any chance? It’s an emergency.” The only way she could think to stall Claude was to get him to clean his wounds.
The organist looked irked and told Cate she would look in her purse when she was finished playing the current song.
She looked up at the high ceiling and the stained glass miracles of the Bible and tried to devise a plan. Maybe now that Claude was in the bathroom, she could have B. J. physically remove him from the premises. Since they wouldn’t be in the church, it probably wouldn’t create a scene. But what if he came back in the middle of the ceremony? It would be a wedding to remember.
Finally, the organist produced a Band-Aid that looked as if she had been toting it around in her purse for twenty years. Cate thanked her before she scooted out of the pew.
She could hear her crisp satin dress swishing as she headed toward the men’s room in Camino Hall. What in the hell was she going to do? Tie him up?
She knocked on the bathroom door. “Claude, are you in there?”
No response. She pounded. “Claude?”
Abruptly, the door flew open. His fly was down.
“Where’s Sarah?” He yanked her by the arm into the men’s room.
“Sarah’s coming. It’s just going to take her a little while.” She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and nearly jumped back from the reflection that stared back at her. She wasn’t used to the bridesmaid look yet. Sarah had wanted all the bridesmaids to look their best for the wedding. But Cate just thought they all looked like strangers. She had always considered her blonde bob too short to wear up, but it had been sprayed and pinned into a tight French twist. She couldn’t get used to seeing her blue eyes clouded with kohl eyeliner and shadow, or her narrow cheeks dusted with cherry rouge.
She noticed that her celery-green strapless dress had begun to creep down her chest again. She hadn’t been blessed with the bust needed to hold up anything strapless and had been readjusting it all day. She set her bouquet on the sink before firmly pulling the dress up to cover the top of her chest.
“Why don’t you clean your knee and put this on?” She offered him the Band-Aid.
“Thanks,” he grumbled. “But where’s Sarah?”
Footsteps approached the men’s room. Her heart pounded so heavily that her nerves shook. She thought she was experiencing stage one of a heart attack.
Claude seemed disappointed when the footsteps passed. “I thought that would be her.”
“I’m going to get her right now.” She could always just leave him waiting for Sarah and hope that the ceremony was speedy. Then she remembered it was a long Catholic wedding. He’d be wrecking the whole event before Sarah and Miles even said their vows. She had to come up with a better plan.
Claude had broken Sarah’s heart and sent her into the kind of depression that entailed drastic weight loss and excessive sleep. It had taken her months to get over him. After she had met her future husband, Miles, Cate had never seen her happier. Now Claude was about to destroy her happiness again. This was the most important day of Sarah’s life, and Cate couldn’t let him ruin it.
“You wait here,” she said.
Outside the bathroom, her eyes caught on something shiny. It rested like a little treasure on the tiled floor. She leaned over the object. Perhaps someone had lost an earring or a key. It was a quarter. An idea popped into her head. It was evil, and she was disturbed that her mind was capable of producing such a scheme, but she was desperate.
Skillfully, she positioned the coin between the door and the doorframe. She inserted the quarter into the little gap like a coin going into a gumball machine, only this quarter stayed tightly wedged in the slot. The door was deadlocked.
It was a trick she had learned in high school when a little boy she baby-sat locked her in the bathroom for five hours. His parents had spent two hours trying to pry the quarters out of the door before they gave up and helped her escape through the window.
There was one window in the men’s bathroom, and Claude would never fit through it. He was trapped. It was early summer, so the campus halls were like a ghost town. No one would hear him banging or yelling. He was virtually stranded. Guilt consumed her as she left him. She’d have to figure out a way to get him out after the wedding. That was going to be a whole other obstacle. She’d have to secretly slip him out of the bathroom before the wedding party left for the reception at the Mission Bay Hilton. It was all too much for her to think about now. She still had a toast to prepare for, and she’d been missing for God only knew how long.
She ran the rest of the way back to the bridal room. Both of her small boobs nearly popped from her dress by the time she arrived.
“Cate!” Sarah exclaimed. “Where have you been?”
Sarah’s parents, the wedding coordinator, and four other bridesmaids waited for an explanation.
“The bathroom,” she said, pulling her dress up.
“Well, are you . . . all right?” Sarah asked.
“Just some last-minute anxiety.”
“I have some antacid in my first aid kit,” the coordinator said, already rummaging through her supplies.
“It’s okay. I’m fine.”
“All right,” the coordinator said before she began giving last-minute instructions. “Since you’re the maid of honor, you’re going to walk down right before Sarah, so get in line behind the other girls.” Cate stood behind one of her closest friends, Leslie, who was also getting married this summer.
The romantic notes of “Canon in D” filled the chapel.
“Bridesmaids, grab your bouquets,” the coordinator said.
Bouquets? Bouquets! The men’s bathroom! Shit! A striking memory of leaving her bouquet on the sink when she’d adjusted her dress struck her like a bowling ball. The other girls were moving. Frantically, she searched for something. Anything! Any bunch of flowers resembling the bouquet would do. Fake flowers, live flowers, grass. It didn’t matter.
She ripped a handful of red bougainvillea from a bush just outside the chapel, a thorn scratching the side of her index finger. The sharp pain made her wince, and for a moment she considered this to be a bridesmaid battle wound.
The last thing she saw before heading toward the altar was the wedding coordinator’s confused face when she looked at her bouquet.