It is bad luck to be superstitious.
—ANDREW W. MATHIS
“A DEATH IS COMING,” Elsie remarked blandly, glancing upward.
I followed her gaze and saw three seagulls gliding on crisp September air. My left temple throbbed slightly at this news. Not, ironically, out of any fear that her prediction would come true, but rather at the explosive effect it might have on the people with me. Elsie is a sophisticated, educated woman, but she has a propensity for fortune-telling that would try the most patient of souls. The year I turned twelve, she told me that I would grow up to “marry a rocker and live a life of international travel.” I had a mad crush on Peter Gabriel at the time and immediately began practicing what I anticipated to be my married name, Elizabeth Gabriel. I even envisioned myself managing his world tours. Obviously, I wasn’t the most perceptive child. I’m now twenty-seven, have never been married, and work as a fact-checker for a local paper in Virginia. As for the international travel, I did once accidentally wander into the duty-free shop at the airport, if that counts.
Elsie’s declaration hung in the air, much like the seagulls. Next to me, I was relieved to see that Blythe’s only response was a simple roll of the eyes. Twenty-eight years as Elsie’s daughter-in-law has inured Blythe to Elsie’s fondness for predictions. It still irks her, but she has learned to hold her tongue. Bridget, however, Blythe’s daughter and Elsie’s granddaughter, has not yet learned such restraint.
“Elsie!” she burst out. (No one in the grandchild generation ever calls Elsie anything other than Elsie—the mere idea of calling her “Grandma” or “Nanny” is laughable). “For Christ’s sake! Don’t start this crap now. The wedding is tomorrow and my nerves are shot as it is!”
Elsie and Blythe, polar opposites in most everything, were united in their response. “Don’t swear, Bridget,” they said automatically. It was a refrain I had heard directed at Bridget many times over the years. It had never had any effect, of course, but that didn’t stop her family from trying.
Elsie tilted her black Jackie O. sunglasses down an inch and gazed at Bridget with tranquil blue eyes. “I am only stating what I see. And what I see are three seagulls flying overhead—in a city. Which is,” she continued calmly, “a well-known sign that a death is coming.”
“You know what’s another well-known sign?” retorted Bridget with feigned politeness.
I grabbed Bridget’s hand before she could illustrate the gesture, hoping to prevent what would have been the twenty-sixth argument of the day, but Elsie only laughed.
I’ve known Bridget since the fourth grade, and I’ve known Elsie almost as long. In many ways, they are a lot alike. Both are ruled entirely by their emotions, emotions for which moderation has no place. Sadness was desolation, happiness was ecstasy, and irritation was fury. It made for some high drama at times, regardless of whether those times warranted even the slightest bit of drama.
“Oh, look,” I said, hoping to distract them both. “We’re here.”
“Here” was Grey’s Bridal Shop, a white, two-story brick structure in the heart of downtown Richmond, Virginia, and a veritable tradition among Richmond’s older families. Happily, our arrival had the hoped-for effect and no more was said about signs and death.
Elsie entered the shop first, the small silver bell atop the door cheerfully announcing our arrival. René, the owner, beamed enthusiastically. He was a fussy little man with a thick mane of white hair that never moved. It was widely rumored that his real name was Jim and that he wore a wig, but no one cared because he had exquisite taste and stocked the most beautiful dresses in town.
“Ah, Mrs. Matthews,” he cooed, hurrying over to kiss Elsie’s hand. “It is always a plea sure to see you.”
“And you as well, René,” replied Elsie, taking advantage of René’s bent posture to covertly study the man’s hairline. “Are our dresses ready?”
“But of course,” said René with a flamboyant swoop of his pudgy hands. “If you ladies will please follow me.”
We dutifully followed René’s mincing footsteps, crossing the store’s thick cream carpeting to the large dressing rooms in the back where our gowns awaited us.
Bridget, as the bride-to-be, slipped into hers first. Unlike the others, it was not from the store but was Elsie’s mother’s gown from the 1930s. A sleek creation of creamy silk with an empire waist, it was perfectly suited to Bridget’s eclectic sense of style and her petite frame. Bridget had uniformly dismissed the more modern designs as making her look like an overdone meringue. She somberly gazed at herself in the large three-way mirror before turning to us. “Well?” she whispered nervously.
A gentle sigh escaped from Blythe as she surveyed her daughter from head to toe. “You look lovely, Bridgie,” she said, with a slight catch in her voice. Thankfully, she made no mention of Bridget’s short spiky hair—a constant source of irritation for the conservative Mrs. Matthews. Bridget herself had made some concessions in deference to the occasion, by toning down the color from near magenta to a more sedate red.
“You look beautiful, Bridge,” I agreed. “Colin is going to flip when he sees you.”
“He most certainly will,” agreed Elsie, with a firm nod that sent the elaborate upsweep of her silver hair teetering precariously to one side and then the other before coming to a halt only millimeters from where it had started. “As my father would say, you look monstrously pretty. Colin is a lucky man. And speaking of Colin, has your mother told you everything you need to know?”
“About what?” Bridget answered absently, still twirling happily in front of the mirror.
“About your wedding night, dear. About sex.”
Bridget’s eyes blinked in surprise and a color not unlike her hair seeped over her cheeks. “Um, yeah, Elsie,” she mumbled. “I think I know everything.”
“Oh, I’m sure you know the basics, like what goes where. I’m talking about satisfaction.”
“Elsie!” Blythe yelped, her eyes growing wide over the rims of her half-moon glasses. Although Blythe had served for twenty-odd years as the headmistress of a local boarding school, and had no doubt been exposed to her fair share of explicit girl talk, Elsie nevertheless always took her by surprise. Elsie had that effect on a lot of people.
“What?” Elsie replied blandly. “You know perfectly well that men can be a bit, well, selfish in that department. You have to show them. That’s why I brought you this, dear. I always found it most helpful.” She reached into her ever-present hounds-tooth handbag and pulled out a well-worn book. The graphic sketch of the couple on the cover gave no doubt as to its contents. Elsie fingered the frayed binding almost reverently. “This book was a blessing for Walter and me,” she said with a wistful sigh. “God, I miss that man.”
“I’m going to try on my dress now,” I said, diving into one of the empty dressing rooms. Bridget caught my eye in the mirror and mouthed the word coward. I nodded in full agreement before shutting the dressing room door tightly behind me.
I closed my eyes and rested my forehead against the cool wood of the heavy door. When Colin proposed to Bridget last New Year’s Eve, no one was happier than I. But now, eight months later, I felt on the verge of a nervous breakdown. From the moment they announced their engagement, there had been a nonstop whirlwind of activity. As maid of honor, I wasn’t at the center of the storm, mind you. That spot was reserved for Bridget and Colin. No, I was off to the side, where, as any meteorologist will tell you, the real brunt of the tempest lies. I’d attended engagement parties, engagement teas, and engagement brunches. I’d participated in endless earnest discussions about china place settings versus the everyday kind. I’d tried (stupidly) to referee numerous conflicts between Blythe and Bridget. The wedding was tomorrow and rather than experiencing the proverbial calm before the storm, we’d increased our frantic pace.
To make matters worse, if that was even possible, as maid of honor I was expected to give the toast at the rehearsal dinner. An actual toast, made in public and in front of actual people. That fact alone loomed over me like an executioner’s ax. I love Bridget and Colin dearly, but my skills at public speaking are second only to my skills as a sumo wrestler. Glancing at my watch, I saw that I had six hours to go. My insides promptly transformed to hot goo and I fancied I heard that weirdly German/mechanical voice from the James Bond movies intone, “Six hours and counting.”
As a result of all this stress, my once-vanquished vices were sniffing around me like long-forgotten friends. I was overeating and seriously considering taking up smoking. Not start smoking again—just start, period. It had been that kind of a month. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve known Bridget and the Matthews family for most of my life and I consider them an extension of my own family. Which is why, I suppose, they have the ability to drive me so absolutely batty. Only family can worm its way under your skin like that.
I glanced longingly at my canvas tote bag, where I had stashed my copy of Sense and Sensibility. Some people turn to spas for stress relief, others to holistic herbal remedies. Not me. Let me curl up with a Jane Austen novel and I’m good to go. Bridget had once accused me of using the novels as a kind of security blanket. She was absolutely right. Among other reasons, Austen’s books are populated with eccentric, trying individuals. When your favorite heroine has to deal with such characters, it can make your own daily encounters a little easier to bear.
Normally, Pride and Prejudice was my go-to book in times of distress, but lately I’d been rereading Sense and Sensibility (and watching the DVD). There was something reassuring about Elinor Dash wood’s almost transcendental calm in the face of chaos; in an odd way it gave me hope. Especially in light of the new tactic I’d adopted for myself over the last few months—one of restraint and control. Too often in the past I’d let my emotions get the better of me. The results were never pretty. But no more; I was determined finally to acquire an inner strength. And if that meant I had to squelch every last one of my natural reactions, then so be it.
With more than a little apprehension, I shrugged out of my red polo dress and into the pale yellow gown. Cautiously, I glanced at my reflection in the mirror.
I’ve been told that I resemble a young Audrey Hepburn. Granted, it was only the one time and was said by my great-aunt Mitzie—who was not only tremendously fond of her Baileys Irish Cream but also in dire need of cataract surgery. Still, it was said and so I count it.
What the rest of the world sees is far less glamorous. I’m five foot seven, 125 pounds (usually), with shoulder-length brown hair, and have been told that I have the map of Ireland stamped on my face. This is a polite way of saying that I’m pale and freckled. As a kid I used to wish that my freckles would merge together—then at least I’d have a semblance of a tan. Now I just hoped they didn’t look like premature age spots.
I shifted my attention from my complexion to the actual fit of the dress. I’ve never had much luck with wedding attendant dresses. Their main goal seems to be to make the bride look good by comparison. The worst one was for my friend Violet Mitchell’s wedding. She had insisted that all the bridesmaids wear—you guessed it—violet dresses. I looked like an ailing grape. The guy I’d been seeing at the time broke up with me shortly after that. I still think it had something to do with the dress. But, as I studied my reflection with a critical eye, I allowed that this one was different. Its basic design was similar to Bridget’s, and with its high waist and sleek lines it disguised not only those areas of my body that were underdeveloped but those that were overdeveloped as well. Better still, as her only attendant (Bridget having adamantly stated that she did not want to be preceded down the aisle by a Stepfordesque chorus line), I did not have to compete with other figures in an identical dress.
As I tentatively craned my neck to check the dreaded rear view, I decided that not only was the dress a far cry from my last wedding, but so was my date. The thought of Peter McGowan brought a warm flush to my checks. It still took me by surprise that we were dating. I’d known him as a kid, but it hadn’t been a pleasant experience. In fact, for years I put him in the same category as clowns, intimidating grade school teachers, and other nightmares of youth. A series of bizarre events last New Year’s (which included two murders and an insufferable cat) had thrown us together again. Since then, Peter had been atoning for his obnoxious past, and I spent a lot of time keeping my fingers crossed that nothing would happen to ruin everything. My dating track record would make the most hardened of bookies seek out Gamblers Anonymous. Things had been bumpy lately due to my immersion in wedding duties and Peter’s immersion in his work, but I told myself that once this wedding was over things would get back to normal.
My reverie was interrupted by an impatient call from Bridget to come out and show everyone the dress. I pushed open the door to my dressing room and stepped out.
“You look very pretty, Elizabeth,” said Elsie matter-of-factly.
“You do look lovely,” Blythe agreed, adding, “You’re more of an Irish rose than ever. That dress is the perfect color for you. It looks wonderful with your dark hair and it really livens up your complexion.”
I had smiled, a polite thank-you hovering on my lips, when Bridget shot me a knowing grin. “Oh, I don’t think the dress is responsible for her coloring.”
Almost before I knew what I was doing, I found myself parroting, “Well, what ever your conjectures may be, you have no right to repeat them.”
Bridget immediately retorted with, “I never had any conjectures about it, it was you who told me of it yourself.” Maybe I had been watching the DVD a tad too much back at the apartment Bridget and I shared.
Our brief exchange, however, was enough to excite Elsie’s interest. “Oh? Then what is the reason?” she asked, instantly on the alert. “Now don’t shake your head at me, Elizabeth. There’s no point trying to hide anything from me,” she teased, wagging her finger at me. “I’ll get it out of you one way or another!”
In addition to considering herself entitled to know the intimate secrets of everyone around her—related or not—Elsie fancies herself a skilled matchmaker. What others think of her efforts in this area is far less complimentary. While “infernal, meddling bull in a china shop” is not the most frequently used expression to describe her, it is the least profane.
I gave a shudder at the thought of what Elsie would do should she realize the extent of my feelings for Peter. It would not be enough for her to know that we were dating. She would not be satisfied until Peter had proposed, preferably while she stood behind him, beaming proudly. I turned agonized eyes toward Bridget. She seemed to belatedly realize the inherent danger in exciting Elsie’s matchmaking inclinations and now tried to defuse the situation. “Don’t get yourself all worked up, Elsie. There’s no secret,” she said quickly. “I was only teasing Elizabeth about her boyfriend, Peter. And he’s already crazy about her, so there’s no need for your interference!”
“Interference! Of all the silly ideas!” Elsie protested. Tapping her chin thoughtfully, she then ruined this sentiment by adding, “Still, it would be romantic for your best friend to get engaged at your wedding, don’t you think?”
“No, I don’t,” said Bridget. “As a matter of fact, if you really want to know what I think—”
“Oh, Peter’s such a nice young man,” Blythe interrupted, trying to steer the conversation away from Bridget’s thoughts, which no doubt contained various obscenities. “He’s coming tonight for the rehearsal dinner, isn’t he?”
Excerpted from Murder on the Bride’s Side by Tracy Kiely.
Copyright © 2010 by Tracy Kiely.
Published in September 2010 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.