Chapter Twenty-One

I had a hell of a time getting to Peter and Gillian’s wedding. A last-minute change in the filming schedule meant I had to cancel my comfortably night-before flight and get one the next morning instead. I barely had time to get to my hotel and change before I had to head to the venue.

Ceremony and reception were both at a low-key Stately Home in a quiet street. I got out of my taxi behind three women getting out of theirs, picking their way across the grass verge in their high heels. It had rained that morning, making the ground soft and the wedding parties nervous. I liked it; the smell of rain was different here, softer and earthier. It smelled like home.

I assumed the girls were friends of Gillian’s. Not only did they not look familiar, but they were dressed like they were going to the races: big hats and no colour. The dress I was wearing was one Laura had chosen for me. Bronze-coloured and simply cut, it had looked like nothing on the hanger. On me, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever owned. As I moved past them, in sensible flats because I’d known the wedding was in a garden, the women twittered together. I couldn’t have told them apart if my next role depended on it.

“That’s her, isn’t it? You know, thing! From that show, oh, what’s it called…”

I lowered my head so they couldn’t see me smile and floated past them like this happened all the time. Truth was, I was still loving it.

I followed the path through a side gate, dodging dripping bushes, and out onto the lawn. Peter was over in one corner with his parents and some other family-looking people I didn’t recognise, so I figured I’d leave him to it. I couldn’t see Richard and Marianne anywhere, but Glen and Darren were nearby, helping Rana balance as she walked along a low wall.

“Aunty Hera!”

Rana swung down and hurried over to me, but she held out her hand for shaking rather than slamming into my legs like a normal toddler might. She was about two, I think, but she always looked like a tiny adult. She was tidy and serious and beautiful. Always, she was dignified.

So I picked her up, being careful of both our dresses, and hugged her. “Hello, habiba. You look lovely. Where’s your mother?”

“Laura’s upstairs. She was sick. Uncle Glen was looking after me. Now you can look after me.”

“I’d love to.” I put her down, smoothing her long black hair, and raised an eyebrow at Glen.

He shrugged. “She had a migraine, and had to go lie down. There are a bunch of rooms upstairs where Gillian and her friends are getting changed. Laura’s up there.”

“Nobody needs to say it, right?” Darren said, watching Rana as she quietly picked all the flowers from one of the immaculately-tended gardens. “We all know.”

I frowned. My mouth was doing that twisty thing, I could feel it. I was trying to stop that, before it gave me lines. “Does Peter?”

“Don’t think he’s noticed,” said Darren.

“Well…” Glen was always slower to speak, more time spent watching. “If he has he’s not letting on. And he’s had a pretty busy day. What with him getting married.”

His tone was slightly pointed, and I realised that I hadn’t really thought about it like that. Yes, we were here for a wedding, but it wasn’t all that significant. I hadn’t thought about Peter actually getting married. It was a ritual. We should give it that seriousness. “Dammit, Laura should… Even for her, this is a bit… We won’t be kicking off for a while, will we? I might go and see her. See if she’s okay.” See whether or not she was okay.

I made my way up the grand staircase and then paused, unsure. The sound of exclusively-female laughter was coming from a room to one side of the landing. I went the other way.

Laura was behind the second door I opened, lying on a little day-bed in the dark. In the dim light coming through the closed curtains, I could see she looked genuinely terrible. Her beauty was so natural; it didn’t seem right that when she was ill it completely faded away. Her skin was a ghastly greenish-gray. Everything about her seemed flat and dull. I had to admit – to myself – that I was surprised. I’d expected her to be faking.

She rolled her head towards me, opened her eyes, and smiled faintly. “Hera. How lovely.”

“I didn’t mean to wake you. I’ll go.”

“No, it’s all right, come in.”

I slipped in and knelt beside her bed, taking her hand. “The boys said you weren’t well. Do you need anything?”

Laura closed her eyes again. “No, thank you love. I’ve taken my pills. Just have to wait for the damn things to actually start working. I’ll be able to come down soon.”

That didn’t look likely, but I didn’t say it. “No hurry. From the sounds of things they won’t be kicking off for a while.”

She snickered. Normally it would have been a deep, throaty chuckle. “Oh, I wouldn’t bank on it. I know it’s traditional to keep the groom waiting, but I don’t think Gillian will risk it. Peter might change his mind. Or find it, at least.”

That, too, I didn’t believe, but then neither did she, to be fair. I squeezed her hand, and let go. “Okay, I’d better go back down. If Peter does decide to make a break for it, he’ll need someone to drive. And if he doesn’t, well, someone has to keep an eye on your hellion of a daughter.”

Again, the thin laugh. “She is completely out of control, isn’t she? I blame the parents. And society. Especially society. She’s clearly the product of a broken home.”

I left her, and went back downstairs. Richard and Marianne had joined the little group with Rana. Marianne was wearing a dress the same shade of red as her Nephthys costume, though it covered more of her breasts. Marginally. Rana was sitting on the grass, carefully arranging all her picked flowers by size and colour.

Responding to Glen’s cocked eyebrow, I said, “Yeah, she’s really sick. She’s not going to make the ceremony, anyway.”

“Why would she bother,” Richard said archly, “when she’s not starring in it?”

I felt Glen and Darren and I all bristle, but it was Marianne, completely unbothered, who cut right through it. “You know, that’s going to be weird. Gillian in Laura’s place.”

I don’t know if it was just because she’d put the idea in our heads, but when things kicked off, it was weird. Darren and Glen went to join Peter, all of them viscerally attractive in the morning suits they’d chosen to wear. Forced down that road, they’d gone all the way: ties and waistcoats and cufflinks, buttonholes and neatly-pressed handkerchiefs. Later I found out the only reason they weren’t wearing top hats was that Gillian had pitched something of a fit. The rest of us stood near them, very clearly on the Groom’s side even though it was just a piece of grass.

Then Gillian came out on her father’s arm, followed by her bridesmaids, and she wasn’t Laura and they weren’t Marianne and me. It just seemed wrong.

I tried really hard to pay attention. I’m sure it was a lovely wedding. I was mostly trying to be as well-behaved as the little girl holding my hand. But the whole thing, the way people moved and spoke, the call and response, the way everything was both weighty with symbolism and worn thin with repetition… It was too much and not enough like our rituals. Still, not once did I see that shadow on Peter, the overlay of another presence. Come to think of it, I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen that.

Then we went to the party after the ritual.

We’d all been given a table together, those who weren’t in the wedding party. I figured that was so we didn’t freak out anybody’s relatives. Or, for some of us, sleep with them. Or freak them out and then sleep with them. There was an empty chair where Laura should have been.

Sitting with Rana on my knee while she obligingly amused Marianne by playing peek-a-boo with her, that thought was still in my mind as I watched the developing situation at the high table. It had started as a disturbance, was now moving through contretemps, and looked to be about to hit kerfuffle. “What’s going on over there?”

“Oh.” It was Richard who answered first, which boded, but if you wanted gossip… “One of the bridesmaids is missing. The taller one with the hair.” He chuckled. “Just as well Laura’s out of commission.”

We all sat about with a growing sense of unease. Then Marianne said, “You know, I think that bridesmaid, the one that’s not there? Is Kim. Gillian’s sister.”

I swung Rana over to Marianne. “You know what? I might just pop upstairs and see how Laura’s getting on.”

 

I slipped out of the room as unobtrusively as I could, but it meant going past the table where a growing knot of people were furiously arguing in low tones. I shot a glance across at Glen, who saw where I was going and nodded, wishing me luck.

My shoes were quiet on the carpeted stairs, but even so I had to go all the way up to Laura’s door before I was sure. The Stately Home was heftily constructed, but the little sounds Gillian’s sister was making still made it through the heavy panelling.

I stepped back and stared at the door, completely unable to decide what to do. How, I had to wonder, did Laura do it? She hadn’t even left the room and she’d still scored. It was unfathomable.

I turned at the sound of footsteps on the stairs, and saw Peter. His face was stormy: he’d obviously come to the same conclusion I had, and he didn’t like it. I moved to intercept him, putting a hand on his chest as he stepped onto the landing. “Peter, don’t…”

He stopped, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was staring at Laura’s door, his nostrils flaring with each breath. He smelled of cloves and bay and something else warmly spicy. I could feel his heart thumping under my hand. “What the fuck is she thinking? It’s my wedding! First she doesn’t even really bother turning up, and then she fucks one of Gillian’s bridesmaids during the reception! I have put up with some shit from her over the years, but this?” He stopped, lost in his anger, and looked down at me for the first time. “It’s Gillian’s wedding. I’m not letting Laura ruin it.”

I spread my fingers, making my touch gentler. “Then leave her be. Go back downstairs, do the speeches, pretend nothing’s wrong. Kim can slink back in when she’s finished.”

He grimaced. “And, what, you expect Laura to just slip in too? And not make a fucking scene? Gods, I can’t believe she did this! I should drag her out by her fucking hair.”

He pushed forward. I stood my ground. He grabbed my wrist, wrenching my hand out from between us, and pushed me back into the wall. I struggled, but I wasn’t sure what I was trying to achieve. “No, please, just let it go! Don’t make it worse.”

He looked down at me again, so angry, and then he kissed me. He’d never kissed me like that before – a time or two at The House, sure, but that was different. This was hard, crushing my lips against my teeth before he forced my mouth open. And I let him. I more than let him. My arms went around his neck, pulling him close. My senses contracted, nothing but his scent and his heat and the taste of him. It burned through me, every muscle in my body softening, relaxing so I fit against his frame, yielding. For what felt like minutes, I completely gave myself to it, no conscious thought, just kissing Peter. He was perfect. I felt his hands moving in my hair, on my back, and my body responded, hot and wet and urgent. Gods, yes, this. So much more of this.

Then I felt his fingers pushing the hem of my dress up my leg, and my brain started to fire again. This wasn’t about me. This was about Laura. The rush of fire where his fingers moved across my inner thigh fought with cold knowledge: it wasn’t me he wanted. He couldn’t have Laura. It was her he was angry at. I was just… there. I was absolutely sure of it. The question was, the trace of his fingers suggested, did I really care?

When he pulled away, I honestly didn’t know why. I hadn’t heard her. But when his gaze focused over my shoulder I turned around, and there they were. Laura and Gillian’s sister. Kim was managing to look both abashed and proud; Laura was simply mildly amused.

“Sorry,” she said archly, “are we interrupting? I thought you’d be needed downstairs.”

“I was looking for Kim.” There was still unaccustomed anger in Peter’s voice, but I might have imagined the brief flicker of surprise in Laura’s face. “Gillian was worried.”

Laura smiled, vulpine. “Well, we wouldn’t want Gillian to be worried, would we? Though I could have assured her that Kim was in very good hands. Not using my mouth of course…”

Kim made a sort of snorting yipping sound, and turned burgundy. I closed my eyes and pretended I was dreaming.

“No,” Peter said tightly. I’d never heard him so angry. “I wouldn’t want Gillian upset, not today. Kim, come on, we need to get back. And you two should at least make it down for Glen’s speech if you can possibly manage it.”

Kim kissed Laura, briefly but heatedly, and headed down the stairs behind Peter. I was left standing at the top with Laura. I was boggled by how much it felt like she and I were the ones who’d done something wrong. I couldn’t tell what ‘wrong’ was any more.

Well, except for… “I’m sorry about… you know.”

Laura laughed, genuinely amused. She sounded like her normal self. “Oh darling, don’t worry about it. I could hardly blame you for that, even if I wanted to. I know what it’s like.”

“You do?” I thought about what I’d seen that night a few years ago, out on the back porch at that party. Her kissing him, undressing him. Devouring him. Had he ever gone at her like that?

She smiled at me, took my hand, and led me down the stairs. It wasn’t a question she was going to answer.

 

We joined the others at our table, and Laura drew Rana onto her lap, kissing the top of her head. The older Rana got, the more she looked like her mother. That day they were even dressed similarly. Laura wasn’t crass enough for identical dresses, of course, but they toned in some way I could see without really understanding.

So there were toasts and Glen delivered a speech which was gratifyingly pitch-perfect given the evenings we’d all spent helping with it. I say “helping”: our most commonly-used phrase had been, “You can’t say that.” After that there was eating and more drinking and Richard asking Laura impertinent questions about Kim. This time around, she chose to play him by answering them all, at length. Neither of them was prepared to back down, and a point came where I simply couldn’t not put my hands over Rana’s ears.

“Laura, seriously, come on! What if she asks someone what that means?”

“I know what it means, Aunty Hera,” Rana said patiently. “It’s the bit between your vagina-”

“Laura!”

“Oh honestly, Hera,” Laura replied patiently, “you’re such a prude. She’s going to need to learn these things some time.”

“She’s two!” Next to me, Richard was snorting into his chardonnay. We were, also, starting to attract attention. That made me pause, and in that pause I realised something. “Laura… are you doing this so she’ll repeat stuff to Gillian?”

My friend gave me an arch look over her wine glass, and deftly batted my hands away from her daughter. “Perish the thought, darling. And it certainly never occurred to me that if Gillian should come to hear of, shall we say, certain practices, it might be to Peter’s benefit.”

As it turns out, breathing wine is quite painful.

As I was trying to regain my composure, a man approached our table. People were up and mingling now. “Hello,” he said, largely to Laura. “I’m Doug, Gillian’s uncle. I saw this gorgeous little girl running about before, and I thought, I bet she’s related to Peter. And you, you must be his sister, yes?”

Laura laughed warmly, and I was pretty sure I felt everyone else at the table flinch at the same time I did. To those of us who knew her, that laugh was like a five-minute warning. I briefly considered going in search of more chocolate mousse. That would have been cowardice, of course. And worse than that, it would have been boring.

“No,” Laura said chirpily, “though that does happen a lot. Peter and I aren’t related. We’re just old, good friends. Very good friends. I’m Laura, and this is my daughter Rana.”

We all watched the thought process play out across Doug’s face. He looked to either side of Laura, and noted the lack of an attached male. He looked at Rana, who looked so much like her mother. And then he looked across the room at Peter.

To give him his due, he recovered quite quickly – enough to speak, anyway. “I’m so sorry. Stupid mistake. You have a very beautiful daughter. Obviously she takes after her mother.”

“Actually,” Laura said, innocently, “I rather think-”

“Oh damn!” I exclaimed. “I’ve spilled my wine everywhere. Get me some serviettes, will you Laura?”

Doug slipped away in the ensuing chaos, which stopped as soon as he left while we all turned to watch him. He went straight to the top table, and spoke to Gillian’s parents. He made a small gesture towards us, and then they all stared at us while we stared back at them. At a whispered suggestion from Laura, Rana waved happily.

I leaned back in my chair and ran my hands over my face. “I don’t know what you’re playing at, Laura. Well, no, I do, but I don’t know why. Why don’t you just leave him alone and let him be happy?”

She looked at me, sharply. “Do you think, if I left him alone, that would make him happy?”

I gave her a wry defeated smile. “No, of course not. Sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking.”