Authors: Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Women
Meg was hardly a slave to convention, but this was rash even for her. “Now? You don’t think you could have done this a couple of hours ago?”
“You were right. Everything you said. You were completely right.” Even through yards of tulle, Lucy’s face looked pale and stricken. “Help me. Please.”
Tracy spun on Meg. “I don’t understand. What did you say to her?” She didn’t wait for an answer but grabbed her sister’s hand. “Luce, you’re having a panic attack. It’s going to be okay.”
“No. I—I have to talk to Ted.”
“Now?” Tracy said, echoing Meg. “You can’t talk to him now.”
But she had to. Meg understood that, even if Tracy didn’t. Tightening her grip on a bouquet of miniature calla lilies, Meg plastered a smile on her face and stepped out onto the pristine white runner.
A horizontal aisle divided the front of the sanctuary from the back. The former president of the United States and her husband waited there, moist-eyed and proud, to escort their daughter on her final walk as a single woman. Ted Beaudine stood at the altar, along with his best man and three groomsmen. A shaft of sunlight fell directly on his head giving him—what else?—a halo.
Meg had been politely admonished at last night’s rehearsal for walking too quickly down the aisle, but that wasn’t a problem now as she reduced her customary long stride to baby steps. What had she done? The guests had turned in anticipation, waiting for the appearance of the bride. Meg reached the altar much too soon and stopped in front of Ted instead of taking her place next to Charlotte.
He regarded her quizzically. She focused on his forehead so she wouldn’t have to meet those unsettling tiger quartz eyes. “Lucy would like to talk to you,” she whispered.
He cocked his head while he processed that information. Any other man might have asked a few questions, but not Ted Beaudine. His puzzlement shifted to concern. With a purposeful stride, and no hint of embarrassment, he strode up the aisle.
The president and first husband gazed at each other as he passed, then immediately took off after him. A buzz rose from the guests. The groom’s mother came to her feet, and then his father. Meg couldn’t let Lucy face this alone, and she hurried back up the aisle. With each step her sense of dread grew stronger.
When she got to the narthex, she spotted the frothy top of Lucy’s veil over Ted’s shoulder as Tracy and her parents gathered around her. A pair of Secret Service agents stood at full alert by the doors. The groom’s parents appeared just as Ted pulled Lucy away from the group. With a firm grip on her arm, he led her toward a small door off to the side. Lucy turned, searching for someone. She found Meg, and even through the tulle waterfall, her entreaty was clear.
Meg rushed toward her only to have mild-mannered Ted Beaudine pin her with a look that stopped her in her tracks, a look as dangerous as anything her father had conjured up in his Bird Dog Caliber movies. Lucy shook her head, and Meg somehow understood her friend hadn’t been pleading for her to intercede with Ted. Lucy wanted her to deal with the mess out here, as if Meg had even a clue how to go about that.
As the door shut behind the bride and groom, the former first husband of the United States advanced on her. “Meg, what’s going on? Tracy said you know about this.”
Meg gripped her bridesmaid’s bouquet. Why did Lucy have to wait so long to rediscover her rebel’s heart? “Uhm . . . Lucy needed to talk to Ted.”
“That’s obvious. About what?”
“She’s . . .” She saw Lucy’s stricken face in her mind. “She’s having some doubts.”
“Doubts?” Francesca Beaudine, furious in fawn Chanel, shot forward. “You’re responsible for this. I heard you last night. This is your doing.” She charged toward the room where her son had disappeared only to be restrained at the last moment by her husband.
“Hold on, Francesca,” Dallas Beaudine said, his Texas drawl in marked contrast to his wife’s clipped British accent. “They have to sort this out for themselves.”
The bridesmaids and groomsmen rushed into the narthex from the sanctuary. Lucy’s siblings clustered together: her brother, Andre; Charlotte and Holly; Tracy, who was darting murderous looks at Meg. The minister went to the president, and the two engaged in a quick conversation. The minister nodded and returned to the sanctuary, where Meg heard him apologize for the “short delay” and ask the guests to stay where they were.
The chamber ensemble began to play. The door at the side of the narthex remained closed. Meg was starting to feel sick.
Tracy broke away from her family and charged toward Meg, her rosebud mouth puckered in outrage. “Lucy was happy till you showed up. This is your fault!”
Her father came to her side and put his hand on her shoulder as he regarded Meg coldly. “Nealy told me about your conversation last night. What do you know about this?”
The groom’s parents heard his question and closed in. Meg knew Lucy was counting on her and fought the urge to back away. “Lucy . . . tries so hard not to disappoint the people she loves.” She licked her dry lips. “Sometimes she can . . . forget to be true to herself.”
Mat Jorik was from the No Bullshit School of Journalism. “Exactly what are you saying? Spell it out.”
All eyes fastened on her. Meg tightened her grip on the calla lily bouquet. No matter how much she wanted to run she had to try to make this at least a little easier on Lucy by laying the groundwork for the difficult conversations that lay ahead. She licked her lips again. “Lucy isn’t as happy as she should be. She has some doubts.”
“Rubbish!” Ted’s mother exclaimed. “She had no doubts. Not until you manufactured them for her.”
“This is the first any of us have heard about doubts,” Dallas Beaudine said.
Meg briefly considered pleading ignorance, but Lucy was the sister she’d never had, and she could at least do this much for her. “Lucy realized she might be marrying Ted for the wrong reasons. That he . . . might not be the right man for her.”
“That’s preposterous.” Francesca’s green eyes shot poisoned darts. “Do you know how many women would give anything to marry Teddy?”
“A lot, I’m sure.”
His mother wasn’t pacified. “I had breakfast with Lucy on Saturday morning, and she told me she’d never been happier. But that changed after you arrived. What did you say to her?”
Meg tried to dodge the question. “She might not have been quite as happy as she seemed. Lucy’s good at faking it.”
“I’m something of an expert on people who are faking it,” Francesca snapped. “Lucy wasn’t.”
“She’s really good.”
“Let me offer up another scenario.” The groom’s petite mother bore down with the authority of a prosecuting attorney. “Is it possible that you—for reasons only you know—decided to capitalize on a perfectly normal case of bridal nerves?”
“No. That’s not possible.” She twisted the bronze bouquet ribbon through her fingers. Her palms had begun to sweat. “Lucy knew how much all of you wanted them together, so she convinced herself it would work out. But it wasn’t what she really wanted.”
“I don’t believe you!” Tracy’s blue eyes flooded with tears. “Lucy loves Ted. You’re jealous! That’s why you did this.”
Tracy had always worshiped Meg, and her hostility hurt. “That’s not true.”
“Then tell us what you said to her,” Tracy demanded. “Let everybody hear.”
One of the bouquet ribbons shredded in her damp fingers. “All I did was remind her she needs to be true to herself.”
“She was!” Tracy cried. “You’ve ruined everything.”
“I want Lucy to be happy just like the rest of you. And she wasn’t.”
“You figured all this out in one conversation yesterday afternoon?” Ted’s father said, his voice dangerously low.
“I know her pretty well.”
“And we don’t?” Mat Jorik said coldly.
Tracy’s lips trembled. “Everything was wonderful until you showed up.”
“It wasn’t wonderful.” Meg felt a trickle of perspiration slide between her breasts. “That’s only what Lucy wanted you to believe.”
President Jorik subjected Meg to a long, searching gaze and finally broke her silence. “Meg,” she said quietly. “What have you done?”
Her soft condemnation told Meg what she should have known from the beginning. They were going to blame her. And maybe they were right. No one else believed this marriage was such a terrible idea. Why should a confirmed loser think she knew better than all the rest of them?
She wilted under the powerful force of the president’s Mayflower blue eyes. “I—I didn’t mean—Lucy wasn’t . . .” Seeing such disappointment reflected in the expression of a woman she admired so much was even worse than enduring her own parents’ censure. At least Meg was used to that. “I’m—I’m sorry.”
President Jorik shook her head. The bridegroom’s mother, who’d been known to annihilate puffed-up celebrities in her television interviews, got ready to annihilate Meg until the cooler voice of her husband interceded. “We may be overreacting. They’re probably patching things up right now.”
But they weren’t patching anything up. Meg knew it, and so did Nealy Jorik. Lucy’s mother understood her daughter well enough to know Lucy would never subject her family to this kind of distress if she hadn’t made up her mind.
One by one, they turned their backs on Meg. Both sets of parents. Lucy’s siblings. The groomsmen and best man. It was as if she no longer existed. First her parents, and now this. Everybody she cared about—everyone she loved—had written her off.
She wasn’t a crier, but tears pressed against her lids, and she knew she had to get away. No one noticed as she began to edge toward the front doors. She twisted the knob and slipped outside only to realize her mistake too late.
Strobes fired. Television cameras whirred. The sudden appearance of a bridesmaid at the exact moment when the wedding vows should have been being exchanged set off a frenzy. Some of the onlookers in the bleachers across from the church rose to see what the commotion was about. Reporters surged forward. Meg dropped her bouquet, spun around, and grabbed the heavy iron knob with both hands. It refused to turn. Of course. The doors were locked for security. She was trapped.
The reporters rushed her, pressing against the security detail at the bottom of the steps.
What’s happening in there?
Has something gone wrong?
Has there been an accident?
Is President Jorik all right?
Meg’s spine flattened against the door. Their questions grew louder, more demanding.
Where are the bride and groom?
Is the ceremony over?
Tell us what’s happening.
“I—I’m not feeling well, that’s all . . .”
Their shouts swallowed her weak response. Somebody screamed for everybody to “Shut the hell up!” She’d faced down con artists in Thailand and street thugs in Morocco, but she’d never felt so far out of her element. Once again, she turned toward the door, crushing her bouquet beneath her heel, but the lock wouldn’t budge. Either no one inside realized her predicament or they’d tossed her to the wolves.
The bleacher crowd was on its feet. She looked desperately around and spotted two narrow steps leading to a walkway that ran around the side of the church. She rushed down them, nearly tripping. The onlookers who’d been shut out of the bleachers clustered on the sidewalk beyond the churchyard fence, some of them with strollers, others with drink coolers. She picked up her skirt and ran along the uneven brick path toward the parking lot at the rear. Surely someone from the security detail would let her back in the church. An awful prospect, but better than facing the press.
Just as she reached the asphalt, she spotted one of the groomsmen with his back toward her as he opened the door of a dark gray Benz. The ceremony had definitely been canceled. She couldn’t imagine riding back to the inn in the same limo as the other members of the wedding party, and she rushed toward the Benz. She tugged open the passenger door just as the ignition turned over. “Could you drop me off at the inn?”
She looked up and met the cool eyes of Ted Beaudine. One glance at that stubborn jaw told her he’d never believe she wasn’t responsible for what had happened, especially not after the way she’d interrogated him at the rehearsal dinner. She started to say she was sorry for the pain this was causing him, but he didn’t look pained. He seemed more inconvenienced. He was an emotional robot, and Lucy had been right to dump him.
Meg pulled her skirt around her and took a faltering step backward. “Uh . . . Okay then.”
He took his time leaving the parking lot. No squealing tires or roaring engine. He even shot a brief wave to a couple of people on the sidewalk. He’d just been ditched by the daughter of the former president of the United States while the whole world looked on, yet he showed no sign that something monumental had happened.
She dragged herself to the nearest security guard, who finally let her back into the church, where her reappearance received exactly the hostile reception she expected.
Outside the church, the president’s press secretary delivered a hurried statement that offered no details, only a brief announcement that the ceremony was canceled. After an obligatory request for the public to respect the couple’s privacy, the press secretary hurried back inside without taking questions. Through the commotion that followed, no one noticed a small figure dressed in a royal blue choir robe and white satin pumps slip out the side door and disappear into the neighboring backyards.