“I’m not supposed to be here.”
“What a coincidence,” I grinned, setting two flutes of champagne on the table and sliding into the seat next to her. “Neither am I.” I handed her a flute and raised my own in a toast.
“To wedding crashers!”
She smiled but didn’t raise her eyes, sipping with appreciation but without replying. For a wedding crasher, she had chosen a perfect table. A bit separated from the main throng, it had a great 270° view: from the wall of windows showcasing the sun setting over the lake, across the elegantly decorated dining room, to the head table where the bride and groom sat, laughing and feeding each other tidbits of wedding supper. She was seated, however, to take full advantage of the line of sight to the...kitchen?
I tasted my champagne. It was good—much better than I expected for a sleepy lake lodge in the middle-of-nowhere Michigan. I drank it with more appreciation.
“You should drink that,” I advised my silent partner in crime. “It’s surprisingly good.”
“I know,” she replied, raising the glass to her full, raspberry-glossed lips. “I ordered it.”
She placed the glass back on the table and stood up.
“If you’re crashing, then I take it you haven’t eaten yet. I’ll get you a plate.” Without waiting for my answer, she moved off in the direction of the kitchen, hips swaying. Glancing back over her shoulder, she smiled ironically and winked. “It’s surprisingly good.”
With an outrageous swish of her midnight-violet skirt, she disappeared into the kitchen.
I sat back in my chair and drained my glass. “Hubba, hubba, keep your eyes in your head, bubba.”
The dress—a Marilyn Monroe halter with full, swingy skirt—was the color of the night sky: iridescent deep blue, purple, and black, shifting as she moved. The girl inside the dress? If I hadn’t seen her, I wouldn’t have believed her. She looked to be about 5’3” including the dangerously high heels. Her naturally platinum hair had been styled in a 1940s fashion: side parted, victory-rolled, smooth waves falling around her shoulders. I never thought I was a sucker for a stacked blonde but this girl had more curves than a roller coaster, and I was a goner when she winked. Her eyes were the same indigo-violet hue as Elizabeth Taylor’s.
The woman was a showstopper.
Brunettes had always been my weakness, but suddenly I wondered if the old cliché was really true: Did blondes have more fun? It might be interesting to find out, I mused. My last (and only) relationship with a leggy brunette hadn’t ended well. Her fault, my fault, everybody’s and nobody’s fault, but it had still hurt like hell. How many years? I asked myself. Five, I answered myself helpfully. The past was in the past, and I was at peace with it. But I still hadn’t met anyone who had made me want to re-think my commitment to bachelorhood.
At that moment, two plates appeared, carried by the same pin-up girl goddess. The plates were showstoppers, too.
The first plate bore a selection of appetizers: a cream-and-green endive stuffed with bleu cheese and sprinkled with walnuts; a tiny caramelized onion tart; two crab cakes; a folded phyllo pastry that I hoped was full of spinach and feta, and a bite-sized triangle of rye toast topped with a sliver of smoked trout and vinaigrette-marinated cucumber slice.
The second plate was pure artistry: three slices of a smoked pork roulade stuffed with nuts and dried fruits plumped with sherry, an elegant fan of paper-thin slices of Yukon Gold alternated with sweet potato, buttery and crisply browned at the edges, and a neat stack of slender roasted green beans drizzled with a balsamic reduction. Wow.
She raised a pale, perfectly penciled eyebrow, waiting for a reaction. I didn’t dare disappoint her.
“Wow,” I said, disappointing both of us.
She nodded judiciously. “I think that’s a fair assessment.”
A server in black pants and white shirt arrived, a glass in each hand.
“Drink the wine with the appetizers,” she instructed. “It’s a 2015 Bodegas Esmeralda Tilia Torrontés. Argentinian. Young, but very drinkable. It’s got a fresh, somewhat herbal note that pairs well with the plate.”
“It sounds amazing.” Still not very articulate for someone whose bread and butter was having a way with words.
“And you can’t have pork without beer. This is a Rochester Mills Maple Brown Ale. A little sweet, and you get a hint of bourbon on the back end.”
I bit into a crab cake. Decadent. I washed it down with a swallow of the white wine. Perfect. But before I could offer any more trite clichés she was gone, heels clicking and skirt swishing as she moved rapidly across the room. I watched her gesturing and giving instructions to a few of the wait staff before strolling up to the head table, where the couple of honor had beckoned her over.
I didn’t know the bride well or the groom at all, but I wasn’t entirely crashing the reception. The maid of honor—Nichelle—was my high school best friend, and I had met the bride casually when the women became grad-school roommates. I hadn’t seen the bride—Heather—in a few years, but all summer long, Nichelle had been nagging me to take a break from my typewriter. You’d love it up here, she predicted. It’s like concentrated nostalgia. Summer had officially ended, but I had finally made it to the Starbrite Lodge. Better late than never.
Sitting at the head table, Nichelle Robinson was an entirely different type of goddess from my nameless blonde angel, and I noticed that several gentlemen—including the best man—seemed captivated. Her dark coffee curls had been swept up from behind, exposing a graceful neck enhanced by a pearl choker. The deep, shimmery teal-colored dress made her shockingly blue eyes sparkle with an aqua hue and set off her rich café au lait skin to perfection.
She glanced up, and I caught her eye. “Surprise!” I mouthed without sound, and she threw back her head and laughed. She whispered something to the bride, who looked at me and smiled. Radiant, just like a bride should be. Curled tendrils of warm brown hair framed her lovely face, and the bodice of her ivory gown flattered her voluptuous figure.
Good for him, I silently congratulated the groom, whoever he was. Clearly law enforcement. The alert posture, the regulation haircut and precision shave, the observant scanning of the dining room—all telegraphed ‘cop,’ and if he was one of my characters, I’d make him a detective. Maybe a lieutenant. I seemed to remember Nichelle calling him ‘Sergeant,’ and for some reason, I thought his name might be Dolby.
“What the what?” Nichelle had beelined across the room, plopping her elegant self into the chair recently vacated by my violet-eyed dreamgirl. She punched my arm. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”
“Ow,” I rubbed my arm. “You look nice.”
“Nice?” she rolled her eyes. “This is 3 hours of hair and makeup. You can do better than ‘nice,’ Word-Boy.”
I shrugged. “Adjectives elude me. I’ve been rendered speechless—”
“You? Speechless?” she interrupted with mock credulity. “Didn’t think I’d live to see the day. Who is she?”
I pointed to the platinum pin-up, now sitting and chatting with some parent-y and grandparent-y looking people. “I don’t know, but I aim to find out.”
WHEN THE MOST BEAUTIFUL MAN you have ever seen hands you champagne, you probably don’t want to lead with ‘But I’m not supposed to be here.’ I don’t even know why I said it, but looking out over the crowd at that moment I felt a wave of loneliness. These were my friends, my family—well, some of my family—and I truly belonged here. Everyone was having a great time, which was exactly what the event planner in me had hoped. But I also knew that if I disappeared right now, the party would go on and no one would notice I was gone. I felt like the puzzle piece that has all the right colors but doesn’t fit with any of the edges.
The dress and hair certainly weren’t helping. I didn’t even look like me. When the wedding stylist saw my dress on the hanger, she clapped her hands in delight, exclaiming in her throaty Eastern European accent, “I make you look like Lana Turner. This I can do!” I knew who Lana Turner was, and I was certainly no reasonable facsimile. Much too short, much too round. I wasn’t the pin-up girl, I was the beach ball she posed with to show what a great time she was having playing in the sand.
Nichelle had convinced me to buy the dress. It was definitely a splurge, and I wasn’t a bridesmaid; Heather and Brian each chose their closest friend as their single attendant. But as the owner of the reception venue, caterer of the meal, and baker of the cake, Heather had insisted that I needed a special dress, and that I take part in the all-day pre-ceremony girls-only style-a-thon with her stylists Roxane and Cecilia. Heather and Nichelle had emerged looking exactly like themselves: beautiful and elegant. I felt like a child playing dress-up in her mother’s outfit.
But I had to admit: the cherry lip stain slicked over with rosy gloss was pretty. And the dramatic cat-eye liner was fun. Roxane had custom-mixed three shades to perfectly match my eyes. The woman was a wizard with cosmetics; now if only she could wave her magic make up brush and make these high heels less painful.
Ignoring my pinched toes, I hurried to the kitchen to plate an extra serving. I didn’t know who this guy was, but he had to be someone that somebody knew. Random people didn’t just show up at the Starbrite Lodge on a Wednesday night after the end of the season. Sure, there would be weekenders through Halloween. Fall color tours were popular, and I had sprung for a few print and online ads. The lodge wasn’t full, but there were cabin bookings every weekend. Weekend—not Wednesday. So he had to know somebody here.
Grabbing a second plate, I started arranging appetizers. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. Somebody’s relative? Cousin of the bride? I didn’t think Heather had any cousins. But Doc and Jolene Brondstetter had endless kids, grandkids, nieces, and nephews. Maybe he was a Brondstetter. But why not just go sit with them?
I opened a fresh bottle of wine and poured a generous glass, then retrieved a bottle of the Rochester ale from the extra cases stowed in the walk-in fridge. Well, there were plenty of people here. I could ask around, or I could wait and see who claimed him. I grabbed the plates, signaled my server Corey, and asked him to follow me with the beverages.
Placing the plates in front of my unidentified extra ‘guest,’ I waited expectantly. The plates were impressive; I was professional enough not to be falsely modest. Heather and Brian deserved my best effort, and I had outdone myself making certain that every nibble and every dish was both beautiful and delicious. Really, what did I have to prove to a total stranger? Not a thing, I assured myself, but nevertheless hoped that he would be wowed by the food I had painstakingly prepared.
“Wow,” he said. Really? Wow? I had hoped for more, but just then Corey set the drinks on the table. I managed to explain what should be sipped with what before scurrying off to the head table, where I imagined that I saw Heather and Brian trying to flag me down.
The happy couple were much more effusive in their praise of the meal, and my cousin Bucky, Brian’s best man, pulled me into a side-hug.
“Good job, Shortcake,” he congratulated me. “Who’s your mystery date?”
“No idea,” I shrugged. “I thought he might be a random Brondstetter, but now I’m not so sure.”
Buck looked thoughtful for a moment. “I don’t think so. Pretty sure I’ve seen him before, just can’t remember.”
“I know, right?” I agreed. “He’s probably just related to somebody, right?” Bucky continued to stare pointedly at the newcomer.
“Anyway,” I extricated myself from the head table. “I need to check the drinks. Looks like we might need to bust out those extra cases of beer pretty soon.”
No sooner was I en route to the kitchen than Doc and Jolene flagged me over to the Brondstetter table. Thankful for a chance to sit, however briefly, I joined the conversation in progress—something to do with a box of kittens left anonymously on the doorstep of Shirley’s Swift Stop. Still distracted by my handsome stranger, who I suddenly noticed having an animated conversation with Nichelle, I somehow agreed to adopt a baby cat as soon as Doc vetted them.
I finally made it back to the kitchen, where servers Corey and Lizzie had matters well under control. Corey was already correcting the beer shortage, and Lizzie was arranging some miniature boysenberry hand-pies on a tray. Jolene Brondstetter had been a little put out that she hadn’t been asked to make the wedding cake, so I had put her legendary baking skills to use by requesting her tart and tangy mini pies to complement the sugary sweet cake. They were working like a well-oiled machine, so I retreated and let them finish their respective tasks.
It seemed I had nothing to do. It was barely 8:00, the sun just dipping below the horizon. The last fiery coral and dusty lavender streaks reflected off the lake, and I suddenly remembered the lanterns. I grabbed a box of extra-long fireplace matches, slipped out the side door, and headed to the shoreline, where a long row of candle lanterns on stakes waited to be lit.
Kicking off those painful shoes, the sand felt soothingly warm beneath my feet. Bliss. I wiggled my toes and sighed. Striking one of the long matches, I moved from candle to candle, soft light gradually spreading down the length of the beach. The night air was still warm, with the barest hint of a breeze. I inhaled the woody smell of the forest combined with the herbal scent of rosemary from the herb garden planters edging the deck. When I caught a whiff of fresh laundry and spicy cologne I realized I wasn’t alone.
AERIN. NICHELLE HAD GIVEN ME that much information, at least. Well, that and the part about owning the lodge and being the cousin of the best man, an enormous mountain of beard and muscle ridiculously named ‘Buck.’ Ask Heather, she said. Heather knew her much better. But the best way to gather information is always from the primary source. Unfortunately, the midnight-dressed, violet-eyed primary source was nowhere to be seen.
The music started, and the bridal couple took to the floor, dancing romantically close and whispering in each other’s ears. Nichelle left me and returned to the head table, where she was close in conversation with the ginger-bearded best man. I strolled to the bar, scanning the room in vain. Optimistically, I asked the bartender for two glasses of champagne. I wanted a second chance to make a first impression.
Strolling the perimeter of the room, I scanned the crowd and failed to find her. Finally back to my original table, I noticed the lights. Along the lakeshore, one by one, lanterns flickered to life. I quickly found the door and followed my hunch. She was there on the beach and even more beautiful, barefoot and bathed in candle glow.
Smiling, I offered her the champagne flute. Three or four wise-guy one-liners flitted through my thoughts before I opted to go with the simple truth. “I was looking for you.”
Even in the diminished light, I could see her cheeks flush. She looked away, sipped nervously.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “For the wine.”
“No, thank you. For letting me crash your perfectly planned and expertly executed wedding dinner. That was a spectacular meal.”
Her eyes lit up with the compliment, so I gave her another. “You know, you’re very beautiful.”
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Her sapphire eyes flashed then narrowed slightly, and her lips pressed together.
“Excuse me,” she said, a slight edge in her voice. “I need to finish lighting these.”
She struck another match with a scratch-hiss-flare and a whiff of sulfur. Walking away, she carefully lit the remaining lanterns. What had I done? I wasn’t sure, but her guard was up. When you tell a woman she’s gorgeous and she runs the other way…I hurried to catch up and apologize.
“I said the wrong thing, didn’t I? Aerin, I’m sorry. I was out of line, and I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“Not to be blunt, but who are you?” She waved the long match and the flame died, a thin stream of smoke wafting skyward. She pointed the burnt end at me. “You know my name, and I have no idea who you are or why you’re even here!”
I raised my hands slowly, taking a step backwards. There was an undercurrent of genuine fear in her voice, and the last thing I wanted was to frighten her.
“Sorry,” I apologized again, gently removing the charred stick from her fingers. “You could put somebody’s eye out with that, you know,” I chided in a humorous voice. There it was. A tentative smile.
“I’m Chet Coakley, and Nichelle and I have been friends forever. Honestly, she had no idea I was coming tonight, and I had no idea that I’d be crashing a wedding.”
“You’re…” she swallowed, her eyes uncertain. “Chet Coakley? As in Chet Coakley?”
“Chet Coakley,” she continued weakly, “As in Clubhouse Confidential? That Chet Coakley?”
“Christopher Ethan to my mother,” I nodded again with a grin, “but yeah, ‘Chet’ to my friends.”
“Oh my god!” she exclaimed. Then her brow furrowed and her plump lips pursed. She grabbed the 6-inch spent match from my grasp, poking me in the chest with it to punctuate her words. In her bare feet, the top of her head barely reached my shoulder, and her poke was just about even with her adorable button nose.
“No.” Poke. “More.” Poke. “Sultry brunettes!” Poke! Poke!
I laughed out loud. So she did know who I was. Chet Coakley was my real name, but it was also my pen name and the name of my chief protagonist. The Clubhouse Confidential series of retro detective novels was my bread and butter, and my small claim to fame. ‘Chet Coakley’ the character was a washed-out baseball-player-turned-clubhouse-manager who kept accidentally stumbling into mysteries. The series took place in 1950s Chicago, and ‘Chet’ was always falling for sultry brunettes who turned out to be bad news. He never learned.
Chet the author (me) was a washed-out baseball-player-turned-novelist who had turned a bad break (literally) into a fairly sustainable franchise. I wasn’t always falling for sultry brunettes, but there was definitely an aspect of art imitating life there. My one and only sultry brunette was long gone from my life, and married to another man. I was surprisingly okay with it.
The first Clubhouse Confidential novel had sold well enough to be optioned by a respectable film director, but in casting it had morphed into a vanity project for an aging Hollywood pretty-boy. When it bombed at the box office, the actor blamed the script. The screenwriter, in turn, blamed the source material. As a result, the last two books in the series hadn’t sold nearly as well as the first three.
And that’s why I was here, at the Starbrite Lodge in tiny Beckley, Michigan crashing a stranger’s wedding on the evening of the autumn equinox. I needed a break from Chicago. I needed a break from my agent and my editor, and I flat-out fired my publicist (that she was my sister didn’t make it any easier). I had one book left on my contract, and I wanted ‘Chet Coakley’s’ sixth and last adventure to be his very best. But I was working with a deadline; the finished manuscript had to be on my editor’s desk by December first.
“So do you really have four older sisters? Or is that just ‘Clubhouse’ Chet?”
“Oh yeah, absolutely. ‘Real’ Chet couldn’t possibly make that stuff up. ‘Clubhouse’ Chet’s sisters are about as real as I can make them without getting sued by my own family.”
She sighed wistfully. “It must be nice to have a big family. Is it fun to have a houseful of siblings?”
I shrugged, “It’s all I know. I was 18 and away at college before I was ever anybody other than so-and-so’s baby brother. Turns out I actually missed it.”
A cool breeze blew off the lake, and Aerin shivered in her sleeveless dress. I wasn’t wearing a suit because I hadn’t anticipated a wedding; I had no jacket to drape across her bare shoulders. So I just put my arm around her and walked her back to the reception. Neither of us remembered the black satin heels in the sand.
© 2018 Tinsley Sellers
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