My new revelation gives me a slightly different angle to view him from. “All this time I thought you were just an arrogant asshole. I mean, you are. But there’s more to it. You’re actually incredibly shy.” He blinks and I know I’m right on the money.
A strange sensation stirs in my chest. It unfolds, grows twice as large, then again. It doesn’t stop; it gets faster, bigger, feathers and fluff stuffing my chest like a cushion. I don’t know what’s happening, but it’s filling up my throat and I can’t find any breath. He seems to know something is happening with me, but he doesn’t press me on it; instead, his arm rises to hug my shoulders, his other hand cradling my head. Again, I try to speak but I can’t. He just holds me and I squeeze my hands uselessly on his lapels and the red foyer in the far distance sparkles like a jewel.
“Josh,” Elaine says. “Oh, here you are.” Her voice warms. Josh pivots without releasing me, sliding my shoes along the marble floor.
Her eyes are a little too bright when she looks at us both. “When you’re ready, would you like to join us inside? You’re at our table.”
“I’ll bring him right in.”
The unfolding in my chest crumples a little when I realize his mother is happy to see him with someone. I straighten up and his hands slide to my lower back. People shuffle in to take their seats and I see heads crane as they walk past to look at us.
“Who am I?” I try one last time. “Your housekeeper? Your piano teacher?”
“You’re Shortcake,” he says simply. “You don’t need to make up anything. Come on. Let’s get this over with.”
I feel some trepidation as I approach our table and Josh stiffens up. We ease into our chairs and spend a few minutes studying the table decorations and our name cards. The others are typed, but mine is handwritten, I’m guessing due to the late RSVP.
The table seats eight. Me, Josh, his mom and dad, Mindy’s parents, and Mindy’s brother and sister. I’m at the head family table. If I had known this would happen when I brashly offered my services as Josh’s chauffeur, I would have punched myself in the face.
I chat a little to Mindy’s brother, seated to my left. Glasses are clinked. I’m praying Josh will say something, anything. I’m about to aim a little jab at the side of his thigh when the silence is broken by Elaine. The dreaded question.
“Lucy, tell everyone how you met Josh.”
Inwardly I shriek. I’ve answered this same question at least eight times today, and it never gets any easier. “Well. Well, uh . . .”
Oh crap, I’m sounding like a priced-by-the-hour escort who hasn’t thought of a good enough lie. What did we agree again? I’m Shortcake? I can’t tell them that. If I ever was going to humiliate Josh, now would be the time. I can almost imagine saying it. He forced me to come.
“We work together,” Josh says calmly, ripping his dinner roll in half. “We met at work.”
“An office romance,” Elaine says, winking at Anthony. “The best kind. What did you think of him when you first laid eyes on him?”
I know a born romantic when I see one. She’s a mother who will take any compliment of her offspring as a compliment to herself. She’s looking at him now with her heart in her eyes, and I cannot help falling a bit in love with her myself.
“I thought, good grief, he’s tall.” Everyone except Anthony laughs. He’s studying his fork, checking for cleanliness.
“How tall are you, Lucy?” Mindy’s mother, Diane, asks. Yet another dreaded question.
“Five whole feet.” My standard answer that always gets a laugh.
Waitstaff are beginning to pass out the starters and my stomach makes a hungry gurgle.
“And what did you think when you saw Lucy?” Elaine prompts. We may as well be sitting in the middle of the table like decorative centerpieces. This is getting ridiculous.
“I thought she had the best smile I’d ever seen,” Josh replies, matter-of-fact. Diane and Elaine both look at each other and bite their lips, eyes widening, eyebrows rising. I know that look. It’s the Hopeful Mom look.
But even I can’t stop myself from blurting, “Did you?”
If he’s lying, he’s absolutely outdoing himself. I know his face better than my own, and I can’t pick it. He nods and gestures at my plate.
I learn that Patrick and Mindy are going to Hawaii for their honeymoon.
“I’ve always wanted to go there. I need some sun. A vacation sounds good right about now.” I push away my plate, which I’ve practically licked clean, and remember that a trip to Sky Diamond Strawberries is on the near horizon. I start to tell Josh, because he’s so fascinated with that place, but his mother interrupts.
“Is work busy?” Elaine asks.
I nod. “So busy. And Josh is just as busy.”
I notice Anthony make a little snort, looking away dismissively. Boy, is that expression familiar. Josh goes rigid, and Elaine gives her husband a frown.
The main courses are served and I begin dismantling it with gusto. Tiny hairline cracks of tension are starting to run through the meal. I must be incredibly slow, but I can’t work out the source of it. True, Anthony hasn’t said much, but he seems like a nice enough man. Elaine is growing more tense, her smile more forced, as she attempts to keep the mood light. I can see her starting to glance at Anthony, her eyes imploring him.
As the waitstaff clear the plates after our main courses, I can see all the major players getting ready for their speeches. Anthony takes an index card from his inner pocket. As they test the microphone, I tug my chair a little closer to Josh and he drops one arm over my shoulders. I lean back into him.
There’s a speech from the best man and Mindy’s maid of honor. Her father makes a speech welcoming Patrick to the family, and I smile at the sincere ring in his voice. He talks about his pleasure in gaining a son. Josh hugs me closer and I let him.
Anthony takes the podium and looks at his index card with an expression bordering on distaste. He leans down to the microphone.
“Elaine wrote me some suggestions, but I think I’ll wing it.” His voice is slow, deliberate, with a pinch of sarcasm I’m beginning to understand is hereditary among the Templeman males.
A laugh scatters through the room, and Josh sits up straighter. I don’t need to look to know he’s frowning.
“I’ve always expected great things of my son.” Anthony holds the edges of the podium and looks at the crowd. His choice of words also implies that he has only one son. Maybe I’m just reading too much into it.
“And he hasn’t disappointed me. Not once. Never have I gotten the call every parent dreads. The ‘Hey, Dad, I’m stuck in Mexico’ call. Never got that from Patrick.” Bigger laughs from the crowd now.
“Not from me, either,” Josh mutters into my ear.
“He graduated in the top five percent of his class. It’s been a privilege watching him grow into the man you see here,” Anthony intones. “His range of experience has gone from strength to strength and he’s well respected by his peers.”
I can’t detect any particular emotion in his voice, but he does look at Patrick for a fraction too long.
“I must say, the day he graduated med school, I could see myself in Patrick. And it was a relief, knowing we’d continue the medical dynasty.”
Behind my ear, I hear Josh draw in a sharp breath. His arm feels increasingly viselike around my shoulders.
Anthony lifts his glass. “But I believe you’re only as strong as the person you choose to live your life with. And today, by marrying Melinda, he’s made me a proud father yet again. And Mindy, might I say, you’ve chosen an outstanding Templeman to marry. Mindy, welcome to our family.”
We raise our glasses, but Josh does not. I look over my shoulder and see two people, heads together, whispering and watching us. Mindy’s mother looks at Josh with raw pity.
Mindy and Patrick cut the cake and feed each other a square. I’ve been looking forward to some cake for most of the day, and I’m not disappointed. A huge wedge of something chocolate and heavy is placed in front of me.
“Great speech. Thanks for that little remark,” Josh tells his father.
“It was a joke.” Anthony smiles at Elaine, but she’s not pleased.
“Hilarious.” Her glare turns glacial.
I know when a subject change is in order. “This cake looks like death by chocolate. I hope it’s not too naughty.”
“You would be amazed by the damage to arteries caused by high-fat diets,” Anthony pipes up.
“Would you say the occasional treat is okay? I hope so.” I’m forking the cake into my mouth.
“Ideally, no. Saturated fat, trans fats, once they go into your arteries, they aren’t coming out. Unless you have a heart attack and someone like Elaine has to fix you.”
“He’s a little strict with himself,” Elaine assures me as I drop my fork with a clatter and press my hands to my chest. “Treats are okay. They’re better than okay.”
“She asked my opinion,” Anthony points out gravely. “And I gave it.”
I notice he’s got no cake in front of him. I’m reminded of the all-staff meeting. Josh didn’t eat any cake then, either. I glance sideways, and to my surprise Josh picks up his fork and begins eating cake too. It’s a great big giant fuck-you to his dad. Over and over we fork cake into our greedy faces until Anthony’s forehead pinches in distaste, clearly unused to having his sage advice ignored.
“Self-indulgence is a tricky thing. It can be hard to get yourself back on track once you begin indulging trivial little impulses.” Anthony is not talking about cake. Josh drops his fork with a clatter.
Elaine looks wretched. “Anthony, please. Leave him alone.”
“Come with me,” I tell him, and to my mild surprise he rises obediently and walks with me to the shadowed edge of the empty dance floor.
“Can you please explain what’s going on? This tension is excruciating. I’m sorry, but your dad is being a dick. Is he always like this?”