Page 66 of The Perfect Couple

Her father stands to give a toast. It’s about Betty first, and Celeste’s eyes well with tears. Then it’s about Celeste and Bruce says, And so to you, Benjamin Winbury, I say from the heart: Take care of our little girl. She is our treasure, our hope, our light, and our warmth. She is our legacy. Here’s to the two of you and your life together. And everyone clinks glasses and drinks.

Thomas stands to speak next, and Celeste leans over to Benji and says, “I thought Shooter was giving the toast.”

“He didn’t want to,” Benji says.

“What?” Celeste says.

“He told me he didn’t want to speak tonight,” Benji says. “He’ll give a toast tomorrow, after we’re married.”

Tomorrow, Celeste thinks. After we’re married.

Celeste doesn’t want to go out; she has done enough pretending for one night. She wants to go to bed. Honestly, she would like to sleep as she did when she was a child: right between Mac and Betty.

Her mother senses something is wrong. Celeste can tell by the emphatic way Betty insists that Celeste go out to be with her friends, be with Benji.

I’ll be with Benji the rest of my life! Celeste thinks. Her time with her mother is dwindling; the sand is running through the hourglass more quickly now, at the end. But Celeste knows her mother will be happier if she goes out.

Besides, Shooter is going. And Merritt—Celeste needs to keep an eye on Merritt. However, when they are all piling into cars, Merritt is missing.

“Wait a minute,” Celeste says. She climbs out of the Winburys’ Land Rover and runs across the driveway to the second cottage. She pokes her head in but the lights are off; Merritt isn’t there.

“Celeste,” Benji says. “Come on!”

“I have to find Merritt,” she says. She tries to remember the last time she saw Merritt. It was during the dinner, obviously, but Celeste had to meet and mingle with so many people that she didn’t get to spend any time with her one true friend. And Merritt didn’t give a toast, even though she’d intimated that she might. Please, Celeste thinks, don’t let her be with Tag. But that has to be it. Where else could she be? She is always the one leading the charge when it comes to continuing the fun.

Celeste tears through the house checking each room—the kitchen, the formal dining room, the casual dining room, the powder room, even the glowing cube that is the wine cellar. She goes down the hall and checks the alcove outside Greer and Tag’s room but she doesn’t have the courage to knock on their bedroom door or on the door to Tag’s study. She scurries down to poke her head into the white living room, even though she has never once set foot in there. She sees a figure in one of the chairs and she’s so startled, she cries out.

“It’s just me,” someone with a British accent says. It’s that Featherleigh woman. “Are you looking for someone?”

“My friend Merritt?” Celeste says. “Maid of honor? Black dress?”

“If you bring me a bottle of whiskey, I’ll tell you where she is.”

“Excuse me?” Celeste says. She has been told that Featherleigh is an old friend of the family but Celeste can’t imagine Greer abiding this kind of rudeness. “Have you seen Merritt? I’m sorry, I need to find her.”

“I’m the one who’s sorry, love,” Featherleigh says. “I noticed her earlier, quite an attractive girl, but I haven’t seen her in hours.”

“Okay, thank you,” Celeste says, hoping she doesn’t now seem rude by rushing out. What is Featherleigh doing in the living room, anyway? Certainly Greer didn’t offer to let her sleep there?

Celeste sails through the laundry room and out the side door, hurrying toward the pool house. She hears coughing and can just barely make out the shadow of a figure bent over in the rose garden. It’s Merritt.

“Merritt!” Celeste says. She crosses the arched footbridge over the koi pond into the rose garden. Merritt is spitting into the grass. “Are you sick?”

Merritt straightens up and wipes her mouth. There are tears running down her face. “The oysters aren’t agreeing with me.”

Celeste reaches out to embrace her friend. “You poor thing,” she says. “Let me walk you back to your cottage. I’m going to tell the rest of them to go to town without me. I didn’t want to go anyway.”

“No,” Merritt says. “No, you go, please, or I’ll feel guilty. I just need some air.” She tries to smile at Celeste but then she starts crying again. “Only I could mess up a gorgeous night like this.”

“Stop it,” Celeste says. “Weddings are stressful.”

“Especially this one,” Merritt says. She holds out her left hand. “You see this ring?” Merritt points to a silver band on her thumb. “He gave me this for my birthday.”

“Tag did?” Celeste whispers. She takes hold of Merritt’s hand and studies the ring. It’s set with tiny multicolored stones. It’s very pretty, but Merritt has a lot of cool jewelry, some of it given to her for free by various fashion labels.

“It’s a ring,” Merritt says. “He could have given me anything for my birthday—a book, a scarf, a bracelet. But he gave me a ring.”

“Yes, well.” Celeste is pretty sure Tag meant the ring to be a token of his fondness, nothing more, but he might have chosen something a little less emotionally charged. Just then, Celeste hears the Land Rover’s horn and she knows Benji is losing patience; she has been gone much longer than she intended. “I love you. You know that, right? And when you leave here Sunday, you never have to see Tag Winbury again. I promise I won’t make you attend any family functions.”

“I wish it were that easy,” Merritt says. She takes an exaggerated breath. “There’s something I have to tell you.”

The car horn sounds again. Celeste feels annoyed at Benji’s impatience, but she knows he has a caravan of people waiting on her. “I have to scoot,” she says. “Come with us.”

“I can’t,” Merritt says. “I don’t feel well. I’m just going to hang around here, maybe go to bed.”

“Before midnight?” Celeste says. “That would be a first.” She gives Merritt another hug. “Tomorrow we’ll find time to talk, I promise. I don’t care if a church full of people have to wait.”

Merritt gives a small laugh. “Okay.”

They are a party of twelve, and town is crowded with holiday revelers. There’s a line to get into the Boarding House; the Pearl is at maximum capacity, as is Nautilus. The Club Car piano bar is an option, but Thomas announces that one ends at the Club Car; one never starts there. Asian Alexander’s wife is wearing stilettos and doesn’t want to risk walking down to Straight Wharf or Cru.

Celeste looks to Benji, waiting for him to make an executive decision. As it is, they are spilling off the corner of India and Federal into the street.

“Let’s go to the back bar at Ventuno,” he says.

Everyone agrees. It’s nearby, it’s open-air; they’ll go for one drink, then reassess.

Somehow Celeste gets sifted to the back of the group, probably because she’s literally dragging her feet. She doesn’t see the point of yet another drink. If anything, she needs food. She was so busy worrying about Mac and Betty and getting them set with their lobsters that she hadn’t eaten anything.

“I’m starving,” she says to herself.

“You and me both.”

Celeste turns to see Shooter at her right shoulder.

She looks for Benji. He’s up front, talking to Mimi the Broadway dancer.

“He’s occupied,” Shooter says. “Let’s go get pizza.” He grabs her hand.

“I can’t,” Celeste says. She’s afraid to look at him, so she stares down at her feet in her jeweled sandals. Her toes are painted a color called Sunshine State of Mind to match her dress tonight. She does leave her hand in his, however, for a few forbidden seconds.

“We’ll come right back,” Shooter says. He whistles sharply, and Benji spins around. “I’m taking your bride to get a slice. Back in ten.”