From her seat in the sanctuary of the Church of the Good Shepherd, Annajane Hudgens wondered if there had ever been a more flawless day for a wedding.
Spring had arrived spectacularly early in Passcoe, North Carolina. Only the first week in April, yet the dogwoods and azaleas were already burst into bloom, and the weeping cherry trees lining the walkway to the church trailed fingertips of pale pink onto a blue and white carpet of violets and alyssum.
It was as if the bride, the equally flawless Celia Wakefield, had somehow managed to will perfect weather. Or perhaps she’d specified blue skies and color-coordinated bursts of blooms in one of her famously precise memos. If anybody could do that, Annajane mused, it would be Celia.
Could there be a more beautiful setting? Baylesses had been getting married at the Church of the Good Shepherd for nearly two hundred years. Not in this grand sanctuary, of course. The original church was a quaint, stoop-shouldered gray granite affair, with uneven oak floors, a single Gothic-arched leaded-glass window above the altar, and two rows of ten primitively wrought pine pews built by black laborers from the casket factory in Moore County, twenty minutes down the road.
Annajane could remember sitting beside her best friend, Pokey, in the Bayless family pew after countless Saturday-night sleepovers, back when they were both still in pigtails. By then, Pokey’s grandmother had already started her slow descent into senility, although Annajane had not known that. Miss Pauline, for whom Pokey had been named, seldom spoke, but she was content to sit in church on Sunday mornings and smile and nod to the hymns, dabbing at her cataract-clouded blue eyes with her ever-present handkerchief and patting Annajane’s hand. “She thinks you’re me,” Pokey would whisper, giggling at her grandmother’s confusion and grimacing and holding her nose when Miss Pauline passed gas, which she did frequently.
When the “new” Church of the Good Shepherd was built in the early ’90s, with reproduction Tiffany stained-glass windows, solid cherry pews, and a custom-built German pipe organ, the old church was renamed the Woodrow Memorial Chapel in memory of Pauline Woodrow, who died in her sleep the year Pokey and Annajane turned fourteen.
Annajane’s own wedding had been held in the chapel, the one concession her new in-laws made to what they considered Annajane’s “quaint” ideas. Since she’d paid for the wedding herself, she’d insisted on having an intimate affair, just family and close friends, fewer than forty people, with Pokey as her only attendant. It had rained the November evening of her nuptials, and at the time she’d considered it wildly romantic that the loud thrum of the rain on the church’s tin roof threatened to drown out the wedding march played on the chapel’s original wheezy pump organ.
Had it been only seven years ago? Sometimes she wasn’t sure any of it had really happened at all, that it wasn’t something she’d just remembered from a long-ago dream.
Today’s affair was nothing like Annajane’s modest wedding. The sanctuary was at capacity—beyond capacity, if you went by the county fire code, which said the church could hold five hundred people. It seemed to Annajane that every living person who had ever known or done business with the Bayless family, or even just sipped a bottle of their Quixie cherry soft drink, had crammed themselves into one of the polished wooden pews beneath the soaring exposed rafters of the imposing Episcopal church.
Annajane felt her eyelids droop now. It was too warm in the church, and the scent of the lilies and roses banking everything that didn’t move was overpowering. She’d had almost no sleep the night before, and not much more sleep the night before that. And, yes, she’d had herself a good stiff drink, Quixie and bourbon on the rocks, back at the house, after she’d finished dressing and before she’d left for the church. She closed her eyes, just for a moment, felt her chin droop to her chest, and the next moment, she felt a sharp elbow dig into her ribs.
Pokey had managed to wedge herself into the pew. “Wake up and slide over!” she ordered.
Annajane’s eyes flew open, and she looked up, just in time to see Sallie Bayless, seated in the front row, two pews ahead of them, turn and shoot Pokey a stern look of warning. Sallie’s gleaming auburn hair shone in the candlelit church. She was sixty-four, but still had the dewy complexion, sparkling brown eyes, and slender figure of a woman twenty years younger. Now, those eyes narrowed as they took in Pokey’s tardy and disheveled appearance.
Pokey gave her mother a grin and a finger wave, and Sallie’s head swiveled back around, eyes front, head held high, the Bayless pearls, a double strand, clasped firmly around her neck.
Annajane offered an apologetic smile to the elderly woman to her right. The woman frowned, but begrudgingly inched aside to allow the new arrival to be seated.
As usual, Pokey Bayless Riggs took no notice of the stir she’d caused. She’d been causing a stir nearly every day of her thirty-five years, and today, her brother’s wedding day, was no different.
The boatneck collar of Pokey’s expensive new red silk jacket had slipped off her right shoulder, exposing a leopard-print bra strap and an unseemly amount of cleavage. Little Clayton was two years old, but Pokey was still struggling to lose her baby weight. She’d managed to pop one of the jacket’s rhinestone buttons, and the tight silk skirt had somehow twisted around so that the zipper was now in the front, rather than on the side. She was bare-legged, which was a scandal in and of itself, but now Annajane noticed that her best friend had ditched the Sallie-mandated sedate dyed-silk slingback pumps in favor of a pair of blinged-out silver flip flops.
Pokey’s thin, poker-straight blond hair had already lost its beauty-salon bounce, and now hung limply on either side of her full pink cheeks. Her lipstick was smeared. But her eyes, her amazing cornflower-blue eyes, glinted with mischief.
“Busted!” Annajane whispered, not daring to look at her best friend.
“Christ!” Pokey muttered. “This is so not my fault. I couldn’t find a parking spot! The church lot’s full and the whole block is lined with cars on both sides of the street. I had to leave the Land Rover clear down the block in front of the gas station and run all the way here.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be up there with your mom and everybody else in the family?” Annajane asked. “I mean, you are the groom’s only sister.”
“Screw that,” Pokey said swiftly. “I refuse to make nice with that woman. Mason knows I don’t like her. Mama knows it too. I’m taking a moral stand here.”
“Who the hell are all these people anyway?” she asked, glancing around at the packed church and zeroing in on the bride’s side of the aisle. “Not family, right? Since poor lil’ Celia is an orphan, and the only family she could produce is that elderly great aunt staying over at Mama’s house. Did Celia charter a bus or something?”
Annajane shrugged. “You’re apparently the only person in Passcoe who doesn’t think that Celia Wakefield is the best thing since flush toilets and sliced store-bought bread.”
“Don’t give me that. You hate her as much as I do,” Pokey said under her breath.
“Not at all,” Annajane replied. “I’m happy for them.”
“Yippy-fuckin’-skippy,” Pokey drawled. “Happy, happy, happy. It’s fine for you. In less than a week, you’ll pack up your U-Haul and head for Atlanta and your nice new life without even a glance in the rearview mirror. New man, new job, new address. But where does that leave me? Stuck here in stinkin’ Passcoe, with my mama, my evil brother Davis, and good ole Mason and his new bride, Cruella de Vil.”
“Poor, poor Pokey,” Annajane mocked her right back. “Richest girl in town, married to the second richest man in town.”
“Third richest,” Pokey corrected. “Or maybe fourth. Davis and Mason have way more money than Pete, especially since people quit buying furniture made in America.”
“Speaking of, where is Pete?” Annajane asked, craning her neck to look for him. Instead of spotting Pokey’s tall redheaded husband, Pete, her eyes rested on another tardy couple, Bonnie and Matthew Kelsey, hurrying up the right-side aisle of the church.
Bonnie Kelsey’s eyes met Annajane’s. She blushed, and looked away quickly, clutching Matthew’s arm and steering him into a pew as far away from Annajane’s as she could manage in the overcrowded church.
Pokey saw the maneuver for what it was. “Bitch,” she said.
“It’s all right,” Annajane said smoothly. “I mean, what do you expect? Matt and Mason play golf every week. From what I hear, Bonnie and Celia get along like a house afire. Best friends forever! Anyway, Bonnie’s not the only one to sign up for Team Celia. Every woman in this room has been staring daggers at me since I walked into this church. I knew when I agreed to come today that it would be awkward.”
“Awkward?” Pokey laughed bitterly. “It’s freakish, is what it is. Who else but you would agree to show up at her ex-husband’s wedding?”