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HERE COMES THE BRIDE
The light hum of the cello set the mood for the joyous day. A wedding. Venus Johnston, do you take this man as your awfully wedded husband? Lawful, not awful, as she'd always thought the preacher was saying during TV ceremonies when she was a little girl. Yes! Yes, finally she would get her chance. Lawfully wedded bliss. Clint smiled, but showed no teeth. His lips delicately turned up, a smirk. A grimace? No. He was truly in love and about to make Venus the happiest woman alive. Her man. Sexy. Successful. Fine. All three characteristics a girl could only fantasize about. But for Venus it was now a reality.
"If there is anyone who knows of a reason why this union should not take place, let them speak now . . ."
Venus hated this part. When the nightmare began. The most dreaded moment when the woman actually stands up and says, "I do. I know of a reason." Venus knows the voice. It's played in her head a thousand times. She turned around slowly to see the gorgeous actress, Vivica Fox, a picture of beauty in a stunning flowing wedding dress. A glorious shimmering diamond hung around her neck, almost blinding the guests.
Clint loved Vivica, that's what he always used to say. But she could never be a real threat because she was only in the pages of glossy magazines and in Hollywood movies. Yet, here she was, extending her elegantly gloved hand to Clint. "Come along, dear. You've played outside long enough. You know you need a real woman, someone who's going to love you and take care of you and put you first at all times. Tell her, sweetie. It's time for her to let you go. How many times must we go through this?" Vivica's voice echoed off the church walls.
"Please no . . . not again." Venus couldn't tell if she was thinking it or saying it out loud. Her panic was rising. Boy, it's getting hot in here. The music switched abruptly. She looked over where the cellist was replaced by a hip-hopper with a bandanna and a gold tooth. It's getting hot in here . . . so take off all your clothes. "Shut up, shut up." She felt Clint release her hand and start toward Vivica Fox.
"Wait, no!" Venus grabbed his sleeve. He shook her off and began walking again. "Somebody stop him!" Venus screamed. "Clint, she's no good for you. Can't you see through all that Maybelline . . . it's not real, can't you see that she's fake? She's not real."
Clint put up his hand, "It's too late," he said with ease. "You had your chance and you blew it." He turned and slipped his hand into Vivica's glove-covered one. They began to walk away, waving like the king and queen of the ball.
Venus hiked up her wedding gown and chased them outside.
"Clint!" she screamed. She turned and watched Vivica and Clint climb into a shiny white Range Rover with a bunch of cans tied to the back and the words Just Married! But Not to Venus spray-painted all over.
"NOOO, not again!" she tried to scream, but the words smothered her, making her struggle for air.
"Hey, you all right?"
She snapped out it and found herself staring into Airic's face, concern and panic written all over him. The rest of the wedding party stared at her with confusion. She was confused too, standing next to Airic with the scent of gardenias and star gazer lilies fragrant in the air, listening to the light hum of the cello. The sun was high above their heads and the breeze was gentle enough to keep a nervous bride cool.
Wasn't it perfect? What wedding isn't? Regardless of the amount of money spent, the blood, sweat, and tears, for the bride all that mattered was walking down the aisle seeing the light in her future husband's eyes. The small details, like her satin heels sinking into the grass, the cake arriving slanted, or the ice statue of cupid's bow melting into a dripping phallic symbol, or the mother of the bride chanting, "Thank you, Lord," were inconsequential on this monumental day. Getting to the altar, hearing that last "I do," and the crowd cheering as if a touch down had been scored . . . that's what it was all about. Venus, the maid of honor, and Airic, a groom's man by default, were the only ones not clapping or throwing rose petals when the minister announced, "You may kiss the bride."
They ignored the organ pressing out the cue for them to fall into procession with the rest of the wedding party. Instead, they remained standing opposite one another, Airic pulling at the black satin noose around his white starched collar; Venus twisting the engagement ring hidden underneath the small bridesmaid bouquet she held, unable to shake the nightmare that had haunted her like a black cloud for the last two years. Each and every time she went to some else's wedding, she felt cursed. And the conversation she and Airic had on the way to the ceremony hadn't helped matters.
Riding along the edge of the Occoquan River in the northern valley of Virginia, they'd traveled quietly most of the way. Swaying green grass surrounded the tall stretch of trees for miles along the highway. Venus kept her attention on the serene view, trying to remain calm. ". . . all I'm saying is that we're not getting any younger. By the time I finally get to walk down the aisle, I'm going to need a cane."
"Why is it my fault?" Airic responded without a pause. "How many times have I told you, name the time, name the place, I'm there. I think you're the one with cold feet." He steered with one hand while his slender fingers pushed relentlessly on the tuning, unable to get a radio station to come in clearly. He shut it off, giving her his complete attention. "Name the date," he said almost as a dare, cutting his eyes in Venus's direction. "What's wrong? Calendar a little tied up?"
Her frustration came out in a completely opposite form, putting her hand over her mouth to stifle the laughter.
Airic gripped the steering wheel until his pale knuckles lost color in his already fair skin. "I'm serious. Name the date."
"Sure, I'll name a date and then the week before the ceremony, you'll say, 'Oh, I thought you were talking about 2002. You meant April of this year.' " Venus deepened her voice to mock his. 'Can you reschedule, dear?' The sun beamed relentlessly on the passenger's side. She was hot. She was irritable, and not just from the dress pinching her in the back where the zipper stopped. Her hair was so tightly pulled back from her face to create a bun effect that her eyes hurt. One more of the bride's many requests, including the heavy layer of fake pearls that felt like a knotted rope around her neck. She tried to adjust the cheap necklace and snagged a wispy strand of hair that was too short to stay put. "Shit."
"Name the date, Venus!" Airic thought the expletive was directed toward him.
"No . . . it's--"
"Name the date," he demanded again, his graying temples creasing at the sides, the skin tightening around his eyes.
"Right, pencil me in for June first of 3003." Venus responded with as much sarcasm as possible, no longer just pissed at the uncomfortable dress, the snagged hair, or the necklace choking her.
Airic's foot pushed harder on the gas, speeding into the opposite lane to pass a small white Jetta. Venus always checked when she saw the small foreign car, looking for the personalized license plate that read, BABYDOC. Of course by now Clint would have moved up in the world, driving something a bit more sophisticated, but she always checked. Always.
"See what I'm saying? Happens every time I tell you to pick a date. This is what I get, silence."
"Right." It came out louder than planned. Venus gave the hair and metal clasp one last chance to part on friendly terms, then gave it a tug, unafraid of the consequences. "Sure, Airic . . . whatever."
She was tired of replaying the conversation in her head. Setting a date. Tired of picturing herself in another white gown like the one worn by the bride, with the splendid train that flowed effortlessly up the aisle. Tired of the whole business. How she'd managed to be standing witness to yet another ceremony was beyond her.
She'd only met the bride, Felicia Meadows, a year and a half ago when she'd been hired as her assistant. Felicia didn't talk much during their interview and only answered questions when she was asked. She'd kept her hands folded on her lap without one fidgeting episode, a sure sign of diligence and focus. At the time Felicia hadn't even a boyfriend, no prospects for the future. Simply moved to the northern Virginia area fresh out of college without a plan, without a strategy, determined to get away from her southern roots in Memphis. Now she was married to Joseph, a friendly financial analyst who insisted on coming all the way up to the tenth floor to pick her up for lunch instead of waiting downstairs in the no parking zone.
With forced steps, Venus moved closer to Airic. They were standing on the very spot where the Felicia and Joseph had just taken their vows underneath a flowered trellis with streams of ivy. "I'm sorry." Still holding on to the compact flower arrangement, Venus stretched to reach around his lean shoulders. The white ribbons cascaded down the back of his tuxedo. "Whenever you're ready. No rush." Her soft brown eyes smiled out of duty. Always her last words . . . no rush. She was only thirty-six. Considered an old maid at one time, but not now. Statistics showed she was right on schedule to give birth to her first child in her first marriage at nearly forty. Plenty of time, no rush.
"Let's get out of here." She kissed Airic on his narrow chin, inhaling his scent.
He kissed her back, whispering near her ear, "That's the best idea I've heard yet." He swayed her gently back and forth. "One day left to get all the good loving I can." His jaw line creased deeply with a smile.
It was true. By Monday morning there would be two thousand miles between them. Working in opposite corners of the country, she in Los Angeles and he in Washington, D.C. A few months earlier, when Ron Chadnum had invited her to lunch and placed the L.A. account on the table, she didn't think twice before grabbing it and declaring herself the winner. She rode home singing along with Mary J. Blige at the top of her lungs. "Like sweet morning dew . . . I took one look at you . . . you were my destiny." Only thing, she wasn't singing about Airic. Her destiny and sweet morning dew was the new account. Fashion had always been her first love and finally she'd be in the center of it with the JPWear clothing. She'd prepared a list of reasons why it was a good move, spending time with her parents in Los Angeles, enhancing her career, and opening the door for other opportunities. Turned out, none of the excuses were necessary.
Over dinner she'd told Airic of the offer--the offer, not the acceptance. "Will you take it? Sounds like an incredible opportunity," he'd said, a little too excited for her taste.
"It is, but what about us?" Venus had asked cautiously over microwaved lasagna that still had cold spots in the middle.
"Us is solid as a rock, two thousand miles can't put a dent in us." Airic had made it sound so simple. Part of her wanted him to throw drama, plead for her to stay, maybe even pout a little. What would it hurt to show that he cared, needed her? He didn't always have to be so understanding, so mature. But tomorrow was the big day. It came quick and painless. She was already packed, already had an apartment, and Airic was already used to the idea of her being gone.
She felt a warm surge of anticipation for the night to come. A send-off like no other. Going-away sex was the best kind. They'd have to go at least three rounds to hold them over until they saw each other again. Airic scooped her up effortlessly like she was being carried over the threshold. Venus called out to her best friend who was wearing the exact same shimmering silver brides maid's dress, making it look sexy and glamorous while Venus felt like a foil-wrapped chocolate bar.
"Wendy, catch!" She threw the small bouquet and blew a kiss.
Wendy caught the bouquet and now held two, shaking them in front of her like pompoms. Her rich brown skin gleamed against the shiny gown. "Call me when you get settled in L.A. I'll keep an eye on your man for you, don't worry."
Venus grinned revealing a set of just-whitened teeth, feeling light in Airic's arms. "This man doesn't need watching, he's in love." She kicked her leg out as she was being whisked out of the wedding garden past the idle crowd of well-wishers. For the moment, she felt like she was the bride. She blew kisses to no one in particular while Airic carted her off. She snuggled into the sweet, heavy scent of his cologne. No rush, she thought. Her day would come.
From the Hardcover edition.