Perhaps the famous guests were waiting until the last minute. Perhaps they’d swoop in and fill the empty seats mere seconds before the bride walked down the aisle. But I flashed back to the half-read text message from Anaka—Um, my dad’s not—and figured she must have been trying to tell me her dad wasn’t coming. Why wouldn’t he be here? Why would he have a last-minute change of plans and miss the wedding?
I tried to dismiss the flight of nerves that circled me.
Soon, the officiant walked out of the house. She had the same cropped blond hair as the TV talk show host, but she definitely wasn’t Sandy. That was odd. Next came the groom, slipping around the chairs so he wouldn’t disturb the runner for his bride. I watched him, and something seemed off about his stride, but I could only see him from the back. Several groomsmen followed and they assumed their posts in front of the guests, and I could have sworn from where I sat that Bradley Bowman had more chiseled cheekbones. Even so, I opened my bag, rooted around as if I were looking for a tissue, and kept my right hand inside the bag to operate the camera. With my left hand, I removed the fabric cutout for the lens, freeing the camera to capture the event. I lifted the purse higher, holding it against my chest. I pushed the silver button on the camera several times to capture Bradley as he waited for his bride.
Then Pachelbel’s Canon began, and everyone turned their heads to watch the bride. Clutching my purse for dear life, I shifted, too, and kept snapping surreptitiously as the bridesmaids walked down the aisle.
The only trouble was, the bridesmaids weren’t Chelsea, or Veronica’s best friend, or Riley Belle.
Nor was the bride Veronica Belle. My heart sank and my skin burned the furious red of self-loathing when I realized why I hadn’t spotted a single familiar face among the guests. Everyone here was an actor. Everyone was a stand-in. Everyone was faking it. That’s why no one needed to check IDs after all.
Veronica Belle had staged a decoy wedding, and I’d fallen hard for it. I had the worthless photos to prove it.
* * *
I cried stupid tears all the way to the library, wiping the streaky lines of mascara roughly from my cheeks. But more leaked out, a cocktail of anger and self-loathing. I’d been greedy, and I’d been foolish, and that was a dangerous combination. I pulled into the library lot, almost toppling my scooter through my blurry, rage-y haze. When I jumped off, I caught a corner of the navy-blue dress on the metal covering of the wheel. I yanked until the fabric came free, tearing the skirt in a slash up the thigh.
Curses flew from my mouth. Enough to send truckers covering their ears.
Frustration poured through every cell in my body. Nothing was going right today, and now I’d owe Anaka a new dress. Hastily, I grabbed my backpack from under the seat, and marched inside to my changing room.
I tugged the dress over my head in one clunky motion, stopping only to wipe more wetness from my eyes. The dress was useless now, so I pressed the fabric against my face, as if I could stopper all the sadness. But I had no right to cry, no decent reason to feel so indignant. This was a job, and the job hadn’t come through as advertised. It was only money. I should know better than to cry over money.
Sucking in the last of the tears, I stuffed my wig into my backpack and returned to my regular clothes. When I left the stall, I turned on the cold water in the sink and splashed some on my face. I peered into the mirror and administered a dose of much-needed self-medication: “Get yourself together, Jess. Big girls don’t cry.”
I let the bathroom door fall behind me, and was about to put Ojai Ranch as far in the rearview mirror as I could, when I heard two librarians at the front counter whispering to each other.
“You have to see these pictures. They just showed up on On the Surface a minute ago.”
My spine tingled. I stopped at the closest shelf of books, and pretended to look through the new releases as I listened.
“Oh. My. God,” the younger of the two women said, stopping at each high-pitched word to catch a breath. “They eloped!”
The floor gave out. My vision went fuzzy. Reaching for the gray metal shelf of books, I steadied myself. I’d never felt faint before, but I gripped the metal tight till the moment passed. Then I stopped pretending to listen in, and walked straight over to the counter.
“Sorry to interrupt, but I couldn’t help but overhear that someone had eloped,” I started, quickly recovering as I did my best to appear calm.