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With foot and paw planted in the human and animal worlds, were-creatures mix techniques from both cultures to secure relationships. This can lead to lifelong happiness or a very confused potential mate.
-- Mating Rituals and Love Customs of the Were
"I can't do this."
"It's just wrong," I whimpered. "It defies the laws of nature, the thin line that separates good and evil."
Zeb rolled his eyes and snapped the bridal binder shut. "It's just a dress, Jane."
"It's a puce dress, Zeb."
"Jolene's getting it in peach." He grunted, clearly at his limit in dealing with whiny undead bridal-party members. "Why are you being so difficult?"
"Why is your fiancée insisting that I dress like Naomi from Mama's Family?"
"It's not that bad," Zeb insisted.
"Not that bad?" I opened the binder and pinned the offending picture with my finger. The model's defiantly blank expression could not mask her embarrassment at wearing this sateen nightmare. It was off the shoulder, with a wide ruffle of retina-burning color that gathered at the cleavage with a fabric cabbage rose. The traditional butt bow actually connected to what can only be described as a waist lapel.
Despite not having that many girlfriends, I had been a bridesmaid three times in ten years. Apparently, I was tall enough to "match" the rest of the bridal party for Marcy, my college roommate from freshman year. My sophomore roommate, Carrie, had a cousin who had the nerve to get pregnant, and I just happened to fit the cousin's abandoned bridesmaid dress. I'm pretty sure my junior roommate, Lindsay, only asked me because she wanted "plain" bridesmaids. She said something about not wanting to be outshone on her big day.
I was thankful to get a private room my senior year.
My sister, Jenny, never even considered making me a bridesmaid. Ironically, her reason for not asking me -- not liking me -- resulted in this inadvertent and certainly unintentional kindness.
I'd suffered butt bows. I'd carried those stupid matching shawls that never stayed on past the ceremony. I'd worn Mint Sorbet, Periwinkle Fizz, and Passionate Pomegranate -- all of which translated into "hideous $175 dress with shoes dyed to match, neither of which you will wear again."
And now, Jolene McClaine, the betrothed of my best friend, wanted me to wear the ugliest dress of them all. Jolene and Zeb had met at the local chapter of the Friends and Family of the Undead, where Zeb had sought help after my new undead condition left him even twitchier than usual. It was your basic love story. Boy meets girl. Boy dates girl. Girl turns out to be a werewolf. Boy and girl get engaged and slowly drive me insane.
In a way, I brought the two of them together, which meant I had no one to blame for this hoop-skirted fiasco but myself. I knew the whole point of having bridesmaids was dressing them like circus folk so you would look better by comparison. But this was beyond the pale. I'd be lucky if angry villagers didn't pelt me with rotten produce.
"This is why I wanted to go shopping with you!" I cried, flopping back on the couch with the boneless petulance of a teenage orthodontia patient.
"Well, the Bridal Barn closes at about three hours before sunset, Jane. So unless you're willing to risk bursting into flame just to exercise your control issues over a stupid dress, I think we're out of options."
I hadn't been a vampire for very long, so sometimes I forgot about the limitations of my condition and the pains Zeb took to avoid throwing said limitations in my face. It didn't mean I was going to wear that monstrosity of a dress, but I would at least stop giving Zeb a hard time. I had developed a nasty habit of needling Zeb since he'd started planning his wedding. Zeb had been my best friend since...well, forever. I was used to having his undivided attention. Of course, he was used to me breathing and eating solid foods. We'd both had to make adjustments. He was just much better at them.
It seemed doubly cruel to pick on Zeb now. While some members of Jolene's family were thrilled that she was marrying a nice guy with a stable income and his own home, there were several uncles who declared the union "clan shame, "the werewolf version of a shandeh.
Werewolves are the most highly evolved were species. They have the most regular change cycle and the most complete, dependable changes. Being natural pack animals in both forms, they also have the most stable social hierarchy. There is an alpha male mated to the female of his choice, who becomes the alpha female. While the lesser clan members have property rights and general free will, all major decisions must be filtered through the alpha couple, particularly the alpha male. Everything from mate selection to business management has to be deemed for the good of the pack.
Jolene's family was one of the first to settle in Half-Moon Hollow. Their farm was now home to the clan alpha couple, Lonnie and Mimi McClaine, their three children, eighteen aunts and uncles, and forty-nine cousins. Jolene was the last unmarried female in her generation, which is not to say she had been without proposals. She'd been courted by scions of several prominent werewolf clans. Her own cousin Vance -- a tall fellow who reminded me of Jethro from the Beverly Hillbillies, only more broody -- had made several failed bids for her paw since she'd turned seventeen. But it was my gangly, goofy, incurably human BFF who stole her heart away.
Lonnie had to tamp down Vance's open griping about Jolene's engagement with a visit to Vance's trailer. It was the werewolf equivalent of a trip to the woodshed. Vance responded by driving to Zeb's house and peeing in his yard. Apparently, you have to be a male or a wolf to understand what an insult this was. In a werewolf pack, you cannot interfere with the mate choice of a clan fellow. You cannot intentionally harm that werewolf 's chosen mate. You are not, however, required to help that person should he find himself in a life-threatening situation. Somehow, Zeb had managed to stumble into several such situations in the few months since he'd been engaged to Jolene. He'd had several hunting "accidents" while visiting the McClaine farm, even though he didn't hunt. The brakes on his car had failed while he was driving home from the farm -- twice. Also, a running chainsaw mysteriously fell on him from a hayloft.
He would never get that pinkie toe back.
Jolene insisted that her relatives were just being playful. I insisted that Zeb not venture out to the McClaine farm without a vampire escort, which certainly hadn't improved his stance with the future in-laws. Despite the grudging acceptance they offered Zeb, most of the clan was distrustful of vampires. Some, in fact, wore vampire fangs around their necks, next to the gold-plated charms that spelled out their names.
On the other side of the aisle were Zeb's parents, Ginger and Floyd, and they weren't exactly thrilled about the wedding, either. Mama Ginger had been planning my wedding to her son since we were kids. Apparently, the image of Zeb coming home to my pretend kitchen carrying a briefcase made of newspaper was permanently burned into her cortex. She figured that having known me since I was six and seen multiple examples of my being firmly planted under my own mama's thumb, I was the only acceptable candidate for a potential daughter-in-law. For my last living Christmas, she'd given me a Precious Moments wedding planner with my and Zeb's names already filled in.
Mama Ginger saw the world as it should be, according to Mama Ginger. And when something didn't conform to that vision, she went to drastic lengths to correct it. I didn't know what made her think she had the right. It may have had something to do with all the chemicals she inhaled at her not-quite-licensed kitchen beauty shop. Just to give you an example, Mama Ginger could not fathom that I would go to senior prom with anyone but Zeb, so she told several of the mothers at her salon that I was being treated for a suspicious rash. This fixed it so no boy at our high school would go anywhere near me with a corsage. With no other eleventh-hour options, Zeb and I ended up going together. Mama Ginger kept the pictures in a place of honor on her mantel.
As Mama Ginger couldn't have her say in choosing the bride, she'd decided to make planning the wedding as unpleasant as possible. She'd objected to the wedding date, saying it conflicted with her bingo night. Every plan Jolene had was dismissed as alternately "trashy" or "too highfalutin." Mama Ginger was also incredibly insulted when Jolene politely refused the Precious Moments bride-and-groom cake topper she'd saved for Zeb's wedding.
Precious Moments. Gah. I could rip a man's spinal column out through his nose, and I still found those things frightening.
Zeb's father, Floyd, had expressed little interest in the wedding after he found out there wouldn't be a Velveeta fountain or a big screen showing the scheduled UK basketball game.
So, the reception was going to be fun. As much fun as one could have while dressed as Satan's tea cozy.
The Naomi Harper bridesmaids' dresses were a concession to the McClaine family tradition of renting formal wear from Jolene's aunt Vonnie's dress shop, the Bridal Barn. Vonnie made all of the dresses herself, using three patterns, all of which ended up looking like a circa 1982 pattern called "Ruffles and Dreams."
"I know, Janie, I know it's ugly," Zeb said, his big doe eyes all guileless and earnest. Dang it, I always buckled under the baby browns. "It is the world's ugliest dress. Of all the dresses you will ever wear, this is the one your body may reject like a faulty organ. As soon as I get back from the honeymoon, I will help you build the bonfire to burn this dress. But I'm asking you as my closest friend in the entire world, will you please just wear the stupid dress for one day? Without whining? Or describing it? Or making Jolene feel bad? Or pissing off Jolene's cousins?"
"Any more conditions?" I grumbled.
"I reserve the right to make addendums," he said, one sandy-blond brow arching its way up to curly hair of the same shade.
"What kind of kindergarten teacher talks like that?" I groused. Engagement had changed Zeb. He was more aggressive, more mature, partly from having to defend himself in life-threatening situations. Unfortunately, he was being more aggressive and mature with me, which sucked.
"What kind of children's librarian takes a job at an occult bookstore?" he countered.
"Vampire." I pointed to my chest. "And I'm not a librarian anymore. When they fire you, they kind of take the label, too."
Zeb's smile thinned as he blinked owlishly and pressed his fingers to his temples. He took a pill bottle out of his pocket.
"Yeah." He sighed. "I've just been getting these headaches lately."
My pessimistic brain flashed on possibilities including clots and tumors. Batting down small flares of panic, I asked, "Have you seen a doctor?"
"Yeah. He said they're probably stress-related."
I poked a finger at the wedding binder. "I can't imagine."
"Wedding planning is stressful, even when you're not marrying into a family with mouths full of fangs and guts full of burning hatred, both of which are aimed at you," Zeb muttered as he dry-swallowed two Tylenol. "On a brighter note, where's your ghostly roommate?"
"Out," I said of my great-aunt Jettie, who had died about six months before I was turned and had been pleasantly haunting me ever since. "With my grandpa Fred again. They're becoming quite the hot and heavy couple."
"I didn't realize ghosts roamed around so much," he said. "Where do they go?"
"As long as it keeps me from seeing two deceased old people getting all touchy on my couch, I do not care."
He grinned. "That's so gross."
"Tell me about it." I grimaced. "I'm working extra shifts at the bookstore, unpaid, just to get out of the house. I keep walking into rooms and finding them...guuuuh. And speaking of the store, we need to table the dress negotiations for now. My shift starts in about an hour. We're expecting some ancient Babylonian scrolls that Mr. Wainwright found on eBay, so he's really excited. He thinks they may have been used in a summoning rite."
"So, you purchased ancient Babylonian texts, which may or may not call forth Gozer the Destroyer, on eBay?" Zeb asked. He cocked his head and gave a goofy grin. "You know, a year ago, I would have thought you were kidding."
I shrugged, pushing the dreaded bridesmaid's dress photo from my considerable field of vision. "And yet..."
I scooped up the ringing phone, knowing before I pressed it to my ear that it would be my mother. I didn't use my spiffy new mind-reading powers or anything. Mama called every night before my shift to make sure I was careful on the three-step walk from my car to the bookstore. She tended to "forget" that I now had superstrength and could twist any prospective mugger into a pretzel.
Mama had responded to my coming out as a vampire with the traditional stages of grief. She just got stuck at denial. She had decided to ignore it completely and pretend it away. She brought two frozen pot pies over to my house each week to "help me out with meals," which was handy, because I needed something around to feed the ever-ravenous Jolene. Mama dropped by during the day, then got upset when the vampire "sleepy-time" instinct kept me from chatting. It was as if she thought I could change my mind about being a vampire and give back my membership card.
"I have some bad news, honey," Mama said as I picked up the phone. She'd long since parted with the niceties of phone greetings. After a dramatic pause, she said, "Grandpa Bob passed last night."
"Awww," I moaned. "Another one?"
This may seem like a strange, even cold, reaction. But you have to understand my grandma Ruthie's marital history. She'd been widowed four times, via milk truck, anaphylactic shock, spider bite, and lightning strike (the lamented, aforementioned Grandpa Fred). I wrote a poem titled "Grandpa's in an Urn" in fifth grade. I had to spend a lot of time in the guidance counselor's office after that.
I loved Bob. Despite not being my actual grandpa or even a step-grandpa yet, Bob had always been nice to me. But he was engaged to Grandma Ruthie for five years and had chronic conditions of the heart, lungs, and liver. He had survived longer than expected.
"Your grandmother says there was some sort of mixup with his medication." Mama sighed. I could practically hear the cap from her "nerve pills" rattling loose.
Knowing this would take a while, Zeb got out my blender to begin another batch of experimental "Jane shakes." He'd been using a combination of condiments and dessert toppings to make the synthetic blood a little bit more like the human food I missed so much. My current favorite was Faux Type O mixed with a little bit of cherry syrup and a lot of Hershey's new Blood Additive Chocolate Syrup: "The pleasant sensation of chocolate without the unpleasant undead side effects!" That was an excellent selling point considering those side effects were the vomiting and agony that came with vampires trying to digest solid foods.
Mama's voice trembled under the weight of Grandma Ruthie's expectations. "I don't know what I'm going to do. Grandma seems to think we should be hosting the funeral as the next of kin. Bob's children are having a fit. She's already made a scene down at Whitlow's Funeral Home over the release of the body. And now she expects me to help her plan the visitation, the buffet, the service -- "
"The full Ruthie Early-Lange-Bodeen-Floss-Whitaker special?" I asked.
"I wish you would stop calling it that," Mama huffed.
"She's held the same funeral service for four husbands. I'll call it what I want." I snorted.
"Jane, I'm really going to need your help with this," Mama said, the faintest wheedling tone creeping into her voice.
"Why can't Jenny help you with this?"
"Jenny's busy with the Charity League Follies, and she's serving as chairwoman of the Women's Club Winter Ball this year." Mama was in a full-blown whine now.
"But good old Jane doesn't have a life, right? Why not make her chairwoman of the funeral luncheon?"
"Don't start that, Jane," Mama warned. "If you would just talk to Jenny and work out this silly business, you could both help me."
"I think it ceased being silly business when I was deposed," I told her.
Jenny had made good on her promise not to talk to me after I came out to my family. She had, however, sent me a lovely note through the law firm of Hapscombe and Schmidt, stating that Jenny wanted access to the family Bible. The Bible, which contained all of the Early genealogical information, had been willed to me through our great-aunt Jettie as part of the contents of our ancestral home, River Oaks. Jenny's lawyers had stated that as a vampire, I could not touch it and had no use for it. I'd had the local offices of the ACLU and the World Council for the Equal Treatment of the Undead send her a cease-and-desist letter stating that such statements were inflammatory and untrue. She'd responded by sending me a copy of the family tree she'd painstakingly calligraphed onto parchment, with my name burned out with a soldering iron. An ugly flurry of legal correspondence followed, and I ended up drinking Thanksgiving "dinner" with my parents after the rest of my family went home.
"Now, don't expect me to take sides," Mama said. "You girls are going to have to work this out yourselves."
"Most of the funeral stuff is going to be done during daylight hours," I said. "I'm not even going to be able to attend the burial. Humans get upset when vampires burst into flames right next to them."
"But you have all the time in the world to plan Zeb's wedding," Mama grumbled. She always got a little cranky when I brought up the "v word." "Where's the happy couple registered? The Dollar Store?"
"First of all...that was really funny," I whispered, glad that Zeb had ducked into the walk-in pantry and hadn't heard it. "But it was a mean thing to say. I'm the only one allowed to make mean jokes about Jolene's family, as I am the one wearing the ugliest dress in the history of bridesmaid-kind."
"What color is it?" Mama demanded. "It's not yellow, is it? Because you know yellow makes you look sallow."
"Mama, focus, please. I will help with the prep work for Bob's funeral as much as I can, during the evening, when I can fit it in around work hours. But I can't do much."
"That's all I'm asking for, honey, a little effort," she said, placated.
"As little as possible," I assured her. "How is Grandma doing?" I asked, trying not to let the resentment in my voice bubble through the phone line. "Should I stop by her house on the way to work?"
"Um, no," Mama said in a sad attempt to be vague. "There's going to be such a crowd there..."
"And it would be a shame for me to come by and make things awkward," I finished for her. The heavy silence on Mama's end said I was right, but Mama preferred not to put it into words.
I don't know why Grandma's rejection of me still stung. Elderly relatives were supposed to give you lipsticky kisses and ask intrusive questions about your love life. They were supposed to brag about your achievements to the point where nonrelatives wanted to gouge their eardrums at the mere mention of your name. They were not supposed to request at least one week's advance notice if you attended family gatherings or insist on wearing a cross the size of a hubcap whenever you walked into a room. My only consolation was that Grandma looked like Flavor Flav and usually tipped over under the weight of her bling.
Eager to get back to a subject she could control, Mama listed the dishes she expected me to prepare to perk up the usual funeral potluck offerings. Apparently, there was some sort of dessert involving Jell-O, cream cheese, and mandarin oranges in my future. While I saw it as completely unfair that someone who didn't eat should have to cook, these arguments failed to impress Mama. I promised to come by for my assigned shopping list after dark.
"How are things going with that Gabriel?" Mama asked. Mama was happy I was dating someone, particularly someone who literally came from one of the oldest families in town. But she was pretending that Gabriel wasn't, either. I could only expect so much. "Have you seen him lately?"
"Not for a week or so. He had to go to Nashville for business."
On the other end of the line, Mama sighed. Dang it. I had just extended the conversation by about twenty minutes. Ever since I'd established a semi-sort-of-relationship with Gabriel, Mama's favorite activity had been giving me relationship advice. I thought she saw it as a girlie bonding thing. "Honey, what have I always told you?"
Now, honestly, that could be any number of things, ranging from "Avoid contact with any surface in a public bathroom" to "Men don't buy the cow when you hand them the keys to the dairy." So I took a shot in the dark.
"Um, never trust a man with two first names," I guessed.
"Well, yes, but not what I had in mind."
"Never trust a man with a remote-control fireplace?" I suggested.
"No," she said, her patience audibly thinning.
"Never trust a -- "
"Honey." I could almost hear Mama shaking her head in dismay at my lack of man-savvy. "Relationships are fifty-fifty, give and take. You have to make an effort. He's up there all by himself for a whole week. Why couldn't you go up to visit him?"
"I have to work. And isn't that kind of desperate?"
"There's nothing wrong with showing some interest. You could make a little more of an effort. I could have Sheila take a look at your hair -- "
"Mama, I really need to get off the phone if I'm going to make it to work on time," I said. "And Zeb's over here, and we're trying to talk about bridesmaid stuff. I've really got to go."
"Don't let them put you in yellow. You know how washed-out you look in yellow!" Mama was saying as I put the receiver in its cradle.
"Someone has to lock my grandma up. She's single-handedly taking down the Greatest Generation," I moaned.
Zeb smirked at me as I slumped down and smacked my head against the counter. In a granite-muffled voice, I told him, "Shut it, or I'm calling your mama and telling her that your parents' names aren't on the invitations. That'll keep you tied up for months."
"That seems uncalled for," he muttered. Copyright © 2009 by Molly Harper White