Part 6 of Love, Late
When Claire started sleeping with her best friend, she thought it was the first step to everything she’d ever wanted. Noah ripped that illusion apart with a few well-chosen words, and she fled their friendship – and the city – to avoid the aftermath. Years later, as her relationship with another man grows serious, has Noah finally seen what he gave up?
The flowers on the table looked like the mutant hybrid of a hydrangea and a unicorn. Claire looked at the mess for a few minutes before she looked up at her mother.
“So, the theme is… madness?”
“Oh, hush. Amy loves them, so don’t you say another word about it when the bridesmaids get here. The bride is always right, you know.” Her mother frowned at her, but Claire could see a lurking smile hidden there.
“The customer is always right – the bride might need an intervention.”
Finally bursting out into a laugh, her mother swept forward and enveloped Claire in a warm hug. Closing her eyes, Claire held returned the hug tightly, breathing in the familiar scent of coffee and wet dog.
“Missed you, Mom.”
“I missed you too, dear.” Her mother pressed a kiss to Claire’s hair before she released her, bustling over to the counter to busy herself with something that already smelled delicious.
Claire smiled fondly at the familiar sight. It wasn’t exactly a mystery to her how she’d learned her way of dealing with problems – her mother was a grandmaster in the art of avoidance, with a black belt in cutting off emotional discussions.
It had irritated her as a child, but as she grew up she’d found herself adopting the same patterns, always too uninterested in conflict to deal with the messy consequences. God, she really was becoming her mother.
There were worse things.
“So how’s Alex doing?” Claire asked. “Any wedding day jitters? Am I going to have to sneak him back to London with me to avoid a shotgun wedding?”
“Alex is over the moon, as he should be. Waiting two years to propose… honestly. If I told Amy once, I told her a hundred times – move on. There’s plenty of fish in the sea. But people never listen, do they, dear?”
“That should be your wedding toast,” Claire said seriously, and laughed when her mother rolled her eyes. “So what do you want me to do with these things? I don’t know what you think I was doing over there, but flower arranging wasn’t it.”
“I know, dear. His name’s Richard, isn’t it?”
Her mother fixed her with an arch look. “What you’ve been doing over there.”
Mouth falling open, Claire gaped at her. “Mom! Oh god, I knew I should never have let you watch Lifetime. Anyway, Richard and I aren’t…”
“Intimate?” Her mother offered, eyes twinkling over her mug of coffee. “Fu-”
“Intimate! Let’s say that, for the sake of my sanity.”
It wasn’t like Claire had never heard her mother swear before. Their driveway backed out onto a major road, so every morning for fifteen years she’d sat in the back seat and listened to her mother tear apart the character, parentage, and sexual deviancy of the drivers that raced by without pausing to let her out. But she could happily go the rest of her life without hearing her mother talk about Claire’s sex life.
Or lack thereof.
“And he still followed you all the way here, my my my. He must be quite devoted, dear.”
“I’d say stubborn,” Claire said, a small smile touching her lips. “It’s the only time anyone I’ve dated has actually wanted to meet my family – but then, most of them were from here.”
“So they already knew us?”
“No, so they already knew better.” Claire grinned as she dodged the balled up napkin. “Seriously though, you’ll like him. He’s nice.”
Her mother pursed her lips. “Mm-hm.”
“That’s the kiss of death, honey.” She heaved a sigh. “Shame. I was thinking we could make it a double wedding.”
As Claire was opening her mouth to tell her exactly how ridiculous that was, there was a knock on the door, followed by a burst of excited giggling drifting in through the half-open window.
The bridesmaids poured into the room like an explosion of confetti, somehow managing to pack the energy of twenty people into three tiny bodies. They could have been Amy’s clones, all uniformly blond with sweet blue eyes and sharp painted nails.
“Welcome back, Claire!”
“Isn’t it exciting? I can’t wait!”
“Don’t you love the flowers? I love the flowers!”
“Oh, I love the flowers too!”
Claire just sat there, her mouth still open and a headache already forming. Was there any way she could make it to the door without being seen? But nope, the doorway was already occupied – Krista was standing there, looking somewhat sheepish.
“Hi,” she said to Claire, ignoring the self-contained implosion of cheer happening alongside them. “Ready to go back to London yet?”
“Oh, definitely,” Claire lied. Huh. Funny – right up until she said it, she thought it might be true. “How’d they rope you into this? Are you going to be in the wedding party too?”
Krista looked horrified at the very thought. “No way – I’m allergic to attention. I’m here because I’ve made the bridesmaid’s dresses as well, and Amy wants me to add some more details to match the… flowers…” Her voice trailed off.
Claire followed Krista’s horrified gaze to the rainbow collection on the table, which was now being fussed over by the three Amys. “Ghastly, isn’t it?”
Her mother coughed, though how she heard Claire over the squealing was a mystery.
“I mean, how creative, right? I don’t know if I’ve ever seen somebody use red… and blue… and green… and purple all together like that..”
Looking like someone had just shot her dog, Krista thumped into the chair next to Claire. “The dresses are pink,” she muttered.
Claire choked on her laugh. Then she remembered that she’d have to wear one. Leaning in close to Krista, she whispered, “I you say that mine was ruined, I’ll give you twenty bucks. Hell, if you just go ahead and dump a bottle on ink on it, I’ll give you fifty.”
“Sorry. I’m more scared of Amy than I am of you.”
Damn it, so was Claire. She sighed, resigning herself to the inevitable. At least she’d be among friends. Then she thought of what Jenny’s reaction was going to be. And Jason’s. And Alex’s.
Oh god, she’d rather wear it in front of strangers.
Very firmly, she didn’t think of Noah. And how it might have been nice if he’d seen her all dressed up, looking sophisticated and charming and years removed from the teary mess she’d been at the end.
Without realizing it, she didn’t think of Richard at all.
Three hours later, the gathering had gotten a lot more tolerable with the introduction of beer and the sheer hilarity of trying to make these bouquets look like anything other than the train wreck they were.
“I think this glue is broken,” One of the Amys – now identified as Teresa, who Claire vaguely remembered from high school – peered myopically at the two stalks she was trying to put together.
Claire leaned over to look. “That’s butter. No more beer for you, honey.”
“Nooo…” Teresa clung onto her beer, defying Claire’s attempt to pry her fingers away. “You can’t – Krista! Tell her she can’t bully me, just because she came back with an accent.”
Obligingly, Krista frowned at Claire. Somewhere along the way, a flower crown had been made out of the reject flowers and placed on top of her dark head. “Don’t bully people, Claire.”
“She got hot, too,” Georgia complained from where her head was pillowed on the table. “No fair. We have enough compe- conp – trouble! Finding good guys ‘round here.”
“She brought a guy, though, and Mrs. Redmond says he’s hot. So it’s okay, because she’s, like, importing.”
“All right, that’s it.” Face burning, Claire shook her head. “You’re all sleeping here tonight. Amy would kill me if I let her whole bridal party get arrested. Or dead.”
“Good to hear,” a bemused male voice said from behind her.
“Alex!” Claire jumped to her feet, or tried to. She’d maybe had a few two many beers, so it was less of a jump and more of a stagger.
Her brother caught her, his warm brown eyes laughing down at her. “God, you’re a mess. How the hell have you survived over there in London?”
Snootily, Claire tilted her head up. “Very well, thank you.” She poked his chest. “Turns out that I can still keep myself alive even without my younger brother to look after me.”
“Oh yeah?” The soft expression on Alex’s face made it clear he wasn’t convinced, and Claire huffed.
If she’d known it was going to turn out like this, she’d never have let him drink milk. The second he was taller than her it was game over, as if his ability to see the top of her head somehow gave him the right to tell her what to do.
“You were cuter when you were smaller,” she told him.
He laughed, a big belly laugh that shook the kitchen and made Georgia bury her head deeper into her arms. “Can’t say the same for you, short-stuff. You were a scraggly little thing and now -” He held her at arms length, looking down at her.
Dizzy, Claire blinked up at him, wondering it would still be effective to bite him on the arm. All that dental work had to be good for something.
“I knew going abroad was the right choice. New career, new guy… and you look fantastic.” Alex nodded approvingly, and she wondered what the heck he was seeing. Her hair was a tangled mess of glue and paint, her face wasn’t far behind, and she was even wearing some of her old clothes. Was this a brother’s delusion?
“Shut up and hug me,” she sighed, giving it up.
Another laugh and then she was enfolded in his arm, tugged in close for an almost suffocating hug that left her gasping when he released her. “There – happier?”
“Much,” Claire said truthfully, smiling up at him. She was definitely going to reintroduce hugging into her life. Some of her staider British friends were in for a shock. “Congratulations again, by the way – you and Amy are going to be very happy together.”
His grin was almost shy. “You think so?”
“I know so.”
Another woosh of air puffed out of Claire as Alex hugged her again. “Thanks – that means a lot to me.”
“Aw…” Krista sniffed. “You guys are so cute. My brother won’t even talk to me in public.”
“That’s because he’s a sleazebag,” Georgia muttered into the table, her hand groping for her drink.
“Don’t talk like that about my brother!”
Alex ignored the chaos magnificently. “What the hell are you guys doing in here, anyway? Please tell me those flowers aren’t for the wedding.”
Looking around, Claire took in the mess of flowers, tangled in glue and ribbons, with paint spattered on the leaves and on the table. They’d completed one serviceable bouquet to use as a proof of concept, and Krista was currently using it as a club.
“…probably not these particular ones?” she offered.