But she did. When she said, “I do,” it felt as if her heart were actually expanding inside her chest. In that moment, standing in front of her friends and family and staring into Bobby’s blue eyes, she started to cry.
Father Tim smiled down at each of them, then said, “I now pronounce you husband and—”
The doors to the church banged open.
A woman stood in the doorway, arms out-flung, a cigarette in one hand. She wore a silver lamé dress that showcased her curves. Behind her, there were at least a dozen people: bodyguards, reporters, and photographers. “I can’t believe y’all started without me.”
A gasp of recognition moved through the church. Someone whispered, “It’s her.”
Claire sighed and wiped her eyes. She should have expected this. “Bobby, you’re about to meet Mama.”
“I am going to kill her.” Meghann wiped the unexpected tears from her eyes and shot to her feet. Mumbling Excuse me to the shell-shocked guests beside her, she sidled out of the pew and stepped into the aisle.
“There’s my other girl.” Mama threw open her arms. Again the flashbulbs erupted in spasms of blinding light.
Meghann grabbed her mother by the arm and yanked her back through the doors. The paparazzi followed, all talking at once. There was one terrifying moment when Mama wobbled on her ridiculous heels and Meghann feared a California-freeway-type pileup of bodies on the red-carpeted aisle, but she tightened her grip and staved off disaster.
Through the now-closed doors, she could hear Father Tim’s stumbling second attempt to pronounce Bobby and Claire husband and wife. A moment later, applause thundered through the church.
Meghann pulled Mama into the dressing room and shut the door behind them.
“What?” Mama whined, obviously unable to frown but wanting to. Too much Botox, no doubt.
A dog barked. Mama looked down at a small St. John beaded travel carrier in her arms. “It’s okay, honey. Meggy’s makin’ a mountain out of a molehill.”
“You brought your dog?”
Mama pressed a hand to her ample breast. “You know Elvis hates to be left alone.”
“Mama, you haven’t been alone in years. Forget whatever poor fool you’re currently sleeping with, you employ three gardeners, two housekeepers, a personal assistant, and a houseboy. Certainly one of them could dog-sit.”
“I don’t have to clear my lifestyle with you, Miss Meggy. Now why in the hell did you throw me out of my own daughter’s weddin’?”
Meghann felt a surge of impotent anger. It was like dealing with a child. There was no way to make Mama understand what she’d done wrong. “You’re late.”
Mama waved a hand. “Darlin’, I’m a celebrity. We’re always late.”
“Today was Claire’s day to be a star. Can you get that, Mama? Her day. And you walked in right at the moment of glory and stole the show. What were you doing out here, waiting for the perfect moment to make your entrance?”
Mama looked away for just a second, but it was enough to confirm Meghann’s suspicion. Her mother had timed her entrance. “Oh, Mama,” she said, shaking her head. “That’s a new low. Even for you. And who are all those people? Do you think you need bodyguards at a wedding in Hayden?”
“You always pooh-pooh my career, but my fans are everywhere. They scare me sometimes.”
Meghann laughed at that. “Save the acting for People magazine, Mama.”
“Did you see the article? I looked good, don’t you think?” Mama immediately went to the mirror and began checking her makeup.
“As soon as the church empties out, I’m going to talk to your entourage. They arrived in cars; they can sit in them until it’s time to leave. I’ll protect you from your stampeding fans.”
“Dang it, Meggy. Who’ll take my picture at the weddin’? A woman my age needs filters.” Mama reached into her crystal-encrusted evening bag and pulled out a black tube of lipstick. She leaned closer to the mirror.
“Mama,” Meghann said slowly, “Claire has waited a long time for this day.”
“That’s for sure. I was startin’ to think she and those friends of hers were gay.” Mama snapped the lipstick shut and smiled at her reflection.
“The point is, we need to focus on her today. Her needs.”
Mama spun around. “Now, that hurts. When have I ever put my needs ahead of my children’s?”
Meghann was speechless. The most amazing part of this science-fiction moment was that her mother actually believed what she just said. Meghann forced a smile. “Look, Mama, I don’t want to argue with you on this special day. You and I are going to walk over to the reception and tell Claire how happy we are for her.”
“I am happy for her. Bein’ married is the most wonderful feelin’ in the world. Why I remember when I married her daddy, I felt swept away by him.”
You get swept away more often than a muddy riverbank. Meghann kept her lips sealed and her smile tacked in place. She didn’t remind Mama that the marriage to Sam had lasted less than six months, or that Mama had run out on him in the middle of the night, after sending him to the store for tampons. For years, Meghann had had a mental picture of Sam, returning to the Chief Sealth Trailer Park in Concrete, Washington, on that rainy night, standing at the empty site, holding a box of tampons. He hadn’t known for almost ten years—until Meghann called—that his marriage had produced a daughter. “That’s the way, Mama. Pour it on. But,” she stepped closer, looked up into her mother’s surgically wrinkle-less face, “you may bring one photographer. One. No bodyguards and no dog. These rules are not negotiable.”
“You are a pain in the ass, Meghann,” Mama said. Her accent was so thick only a trained ear could understand it. “No wonder you can’t keep a man for long.”
“This from the woman whose been married what—six times? Pretty soon you and Elizabeth Taylor will have to start swapping husbands or you’ll run out.”
“You have no romance in your soul.”
“I can’t imagine why, growing up as I did with so much love.”
They stood there, inches apart, staring at each other.
Then Mama laughed. The real thing this time, not that sexy kitten-laugh she used in Hollywood, but the deep, tavern sound she’d been born with. “Meggy, darlin’, you always did bust my ass. You flipped me off when you were eight months old—did I ever tell you that?”
Meghann smiled in spite of herself. It was always this way between them. How could you stay angry with a woman as shallow as Mama? In the end, sometimes there was nothing to do but laugh and go on. “I don’t think so, Mama.”
She put her arm around Meghann and pulled her close. It reminded Meghann of so many childhood and adolescent times. She and Mama had always fought like cats and dogs, and then ended up laughing. Probably because both of them would rather laugh than cry. “No. You looked right up, smiled, and flipped me off. It was the funniest damn thing ever.”
“I’ve done it a few times since.”
“I imagine you have. It’s the nature of the beast. You’d know this if you’d had children.”
“Don’t go there, Mama.”
“Oh, fiddle-dee-dee. You don’t tell me what to do or say, Missy. It takes guts to be a mother. You just don’t have ’em, that’s all. Look at the way you pawned off your sister. Nothin’ to be ashamed of.”
“Mama, I don’t think you ought to tell me what it takes to be a mother. I might have to remind you of a few things you pretend to forget. Like how it was your job to raise Claire, not mine.”
“So, are we goin’ to this reception or not? I have a midnight flight home. But don’t worry, there’s none of that two-hours-ahead stuff for stars like me. I need to be at SeaTac by eleven.”
“That means you need to leave here about eight-thirty. So let’s go. And I mean it, Mama, best behavior.”
“Now, darlin’, you know that social etiquette is bred into us Southern girls.”
“Oh, please. You’re as Southern as Tony Soprano.”
Mama sniffed. “I swear, I should have left you by the side of the road in Wheeling, West Virginia.”
“You did leave me there.”
“You always were a hard and unforgiving person. It’s a flaw, Meggy. Truly. So I miscounted my children. It happens. My mistake was in comin’ back for you.”
Meghann sighed. There was no way to get the last word with Mama. “Come on, Mama. Claire probably thinks I killed you.”
CLAIRE REFUSED TO THINK ABOUT THE DEBACLE WITH Mama. She clung to Bobby’s arm and let herself be carried away. She was the center of a laughing, talking, congratulatory crowd. She had never felt so special, so completely loved in her life. Most of the town had turned out for this wedding, and everyone stopped Claire to tell her that she was the prettiest bride ever.
It went straight to a woman’s head, that kind of thing. You forgot sometimes, in the middle of a hectic, single-mother life, how it felt to be the center of attention.
Bobby slipped an arm more tightly around her waist, pulled her close. “Have I told you how beautiful you look?”
She stopped and turned to him, letting her body melt against his. The wedding guests kept moving past them, jostling them. “You have.”
“When you came down that aisle, you took my breath away. I love you, Mrs. Austin.”
She felt tears start again. It came as no surprise. She’d been weepy all day.
They kept their arms around each other and followed the crowd, walking slowly this time. “I don’t see why everyone had to park at Riverfront Park. There’s usually plenty of room at the church. We can all carpool to the campground.”
Bobby shrugged. “I’m just following the crowd. Gina said the limo was waiting for us at the park.”
Claire laughed. “Leave it to Meghann to rent a limo to drive us six miles.” But she couldn’t deny that she was excited. She’d never been in a limousine.
In front of them, the crowd stopped; as if on cue, they parted, forming a dark aisle.
“Come on,” Gina yelled out, waving them forward.
Claire grabbed Bobby’s hand and pulled him forward. Around them, the guests clapped and cheered them on. A shower of rice seemed to fall from the sky; it sprinkled their faces and crunched beneath their feet.
They came to the end of the crowd.
“Oh, my God.” Claire turned around, searched the crowd for Meghann, but her sister was nowhere to be seen.
She couldn’t believe her eyes. Riverfront Park, the very place where she’d spent her childhood, where she’d broken her ankle playing red rover, where she’d tasted her first kiss, had been transformed.
Night turned the thick lawn jet-black. Off to the right, the now-quiet river was a tarnished silver ribbon that caught the moonlight and held it.
A huge white tent had been set up in the park. Thousands of tiny white Christmas lights twined up the poles and across the makeshift ceilings. Even from here, Claire could see the tables set up within the tent. Silvery, shimmery tablecloths draped each one. Chinese lanterns cut the light into shapes—stars and crescents that patterned the floor and walls.