One Hex of a Wedding

One Hex of a Wedding
Original Edition: Berkley Prime Crime, August 2006
Second Edition: Nightqueen Enterprises, LLC, November 2016

Emerald O'Brien is about to tie the knot with her fiance Joe, but one uninvited guest to their engagement party reminds her that some ties still need to be severed. Her ex-hubby Roy can't hold his liquor--or his temper--and after brawling with Joe, he threatens to ruin their wedding. When Joe is wounded from a gunshot the next day, Roy becomes the prime suspect. Emerald knows her ex has a mean streak a mile wide but doesn't believe he'd be capable of attempted murder. And when a sinister presence starts stalking her maid of honor, Em begins to worry that her marriage has been cursed before she's even walked down the aisle...

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Chapter 1

THE PARTY WAS in full swing when Harlow grabbed the microphone and motioned for the Barry Boys to take a break from the ‘80s retro dance numbers they were playing. The strains of "Burning Down the House" fell silent as she stepped up on the stage and clapped her hands for attention, although she needn't have bothered. My ex-supermodel buddy was tall, gorgeous, with golden blond hair braided à la Bo Derek's cornrows, and the mere sight of her standing there in a gold mini-dress and red stilettos stunned the room into silence.

"Welcome, and thank you for coming. As you know, Emerald and Joe will be taking that last leap of faith and making it official. Countdown is T-minus two weeks! And we'll all be right there with them, cheering them on. Until then, let's bring down the house!"

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The crowd erupted in a roar and Jimbo, who was standing next to me, swung me up to sit on his shoulder. I grabbed hold of his shirt collar with one hand-I've never been one for high-wire acts-and he braced my legs against his chest and paraded me around the room. I waved as a volley of friendly catcalls rang out from our friends, and then he stopped in front of Joe and tossed me into my fiancé's arms. I gasped as I sailed through the air, but Joe caught me without so much as a grunt. As he set me down on the floor, I looped my arm through his.

Harlow's voice rang out again. "Be careful, Jimbo. Remember she head-butted you to the floor once before. I'm sure she can do it again." Another round of laughter from the crowd. "Okay, let's show these two just what we're made of. Get your butts in gear and bring on the music!"

Joe and I found ourselves unceremoniously pushed into the middle of the dance floor while the band began a frenzied rendition of "Whip It." He grabbed my hand and spun me out to the center, where I let go with a shimmy that brought yet another round of cheers, and then the room was filled with dancers, clapping and head-banging to the beat. As the band segued into "Don't You (Forget About Me)," by Simple Minds, I rested my head on Joe's shoulder, and he wrapped his arms around my waist as we swirled around the floor, lost in the music. Would we still be dancing like this in fifty years? I couldn't see that far ahead, but something inside told me we would.

"Babe, you look gorgeous," he whispered.

And in truth, I felt gorgeous. I had shaped up a lot over the past six months as I advanced my practice of yoga, and while I vowed never to give up my caffeine or chocolate, I had managed to cut back on the sugar. As for my outfit, I'd found the perfect lilac gauze and lace skirt for the party, thanks to Harlow and a trip to Seattle. It floated a couple inches above my knees, and I'd paired it with a plum camisole and a Victoria's Secret demi bra.

I'd also succumbed to vanity at long last, and dyed the silver out of my waist-length mass of curls. When I told Harl I intended to go to Bab's Salon down the street from my teashop, she whisked me away to Seattle. We stopped at the Gene Juarez spa for the works. As an early shower gift, she paid my way through a trim, color job, manicure, pedicure, and massage, and I didn't put up a fight. Then we hit her favorite boutiques, where I found my outfit and the perfect pair of shoes.

As Joe danced me around the floor, I glanced down at the open-toe, sling-back black pumps, still aghast both at how high the heels were and at how much they'd set my credit card back. My toenails, painted a brilliant fuchsia, stood out against the rich fabric. Suddenly overwhelmed by the whimsy of the situation, I pushed aside my worry over their cost and laughed as Joe dipped me. The back of my head almost touching the floor, I raised one leg into the air, toe pointed, in a kick that would have made Catherine Zeta-Jones proud.

After the song ended, the band took a break and everybody headed for the buffet. I rested my head on Harlow's shoulder. "Thank you," I said. "Even with my family here, I'm having so much fun. Thank God, I don't have to entertain them tonight. The buffet will take care of that. It's been crazy since they showed up."

Harl's eyes twinkled. "Relatives can be a bitch, can't they?" She threw her arm around my shoulder and wrinkled her nose. "I'm so glad you let me plan everything. Murray's knee-deep in work right now, and I love playing hostess. You shouldn't have to worry about anything."

I frowned. She'd just touched on a point that had been bothering me all day. "Harl, does Murray seem different to you lately?"

"What do you mean?" Harl cocked her head to one side.

I shook my head. "I don't know. It seems like she's been moody and distant for the past couple of weeks. I know things are okay with Jimbo, so I don't think it's anything to do with their relationship. I'm just a little worried. She doesn't seem herself lately."

Harlow shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe. To be honest, I've been focused on other things. Like this party." She looked around. "Everybody seems to be having fun, don't you think? And the room looks gorgeous."

She was right, on both counts. Everyone-including my easily offended Grandma McGrady-had a smile on their face. And the banquet room at the Forest End's Diner had been decked out in full glory. A huge photograph of Joe and me blown up to poster proportions graced an easel near the buffet. Roses, both pink and red, filled vases on every table. Streamers in sparkling metallic hues of purple, green, blue, and gold spiraled from the ceiling, and the walls had stick-on hearts plastered on them.

I had a suspicion the latter was Kip's idea. He'd developed a romantic streak ever since he realized that I'd be marrying a man who would be there every day to hang out with him and treat him like his father should have, but never did. Add in the fact that I'd seen the hearts peeking out of my ten-year-old's backpack before he and Miranda headed out to help Harlow get things ready, and I was pretty sure my guess was on track.

"Speaking of Murray, where is she?" Harl asked. "I wanted her to lead the toasts."

Anna Murray, my best friend in the whole world and my maid of honor, was nowhere in sight. I glanced around, wondering where she'd disappeared to. "I don't know. Last I saw she was dancing with Jimbo. Whoever knew he could do the twist? And I'd have lost my shirt betting he wouldn't know the difference between the Hustle and a waltz." Jimbo, it turned out, was not only a biker extraordinaire, but also quite the star on the dance floor.

"You and me both," Harl said. She glanced around and a smile filtered over her face, a smile I recognized instantly. I followed her gaze to find myself staring at her husband, James. He was a lean, muscular, dark-haired man who was a good three inches shorter than Harlow. James carried himself with a quiet dignity. He was holding their daughter, Eileen, who was only a couple months shy of her first birthday. The look on his face said everything was right in his world. Harlow and Eileen were lucky ladies. He was one of the good guys.

"You, my dear, have a beautiful family," I said. "So, what's next on his agenda?" James was a photographer and was often away for several months at a time on photo shoots. A childhood sweetheart of Harl's, they'd reconnected years ago when he was assigned to photograph a layout where she was the star supermodel. They'd rekindled their romance and-aware of the fleeting life expectancy of her career-Harlow decided to get out while she was on top. She had socked away most of her money, after a brief dip into the cokehead-party lifestyle, and they were set for life.

Harl shrugged, her smile fading. "He said he's staying close to home, but I know for a fact he's being talked up by one of the big adventure magazines. Other than that, he's got a three-day shoot coming up at the end of the month for the Seattle tourism board. We're all going and turning it into a mini-vacation. But that's after your wedding, so don't worry about us skipping out on you."

Just then, I noticed Murray slip back into the room from the double doors leading to the restaurant proper. When she saw us, she motioned with her head. I didn't like the look on her face.

I touched Harl on the arm and she followed my gaze. "She looks upset."

"Yeah, she does, doesn't she? Come on, let's go see what's up."

As we made our way through the crowd, I fielded congratulations from all sides. The party was one last bash before the wedding, for my relatives, my customers, and all of our friends. The ladies who frequented my tea and china shop would have felt slighted if they weren't offered the chance to congratulate their tea-monger. Jimbo and Joe were planning a family-and-friends-only barbecue for tomorrow after my bridal shower, and Harl would be holding a formal dinner a few days before our wedding.

Murray impatiently gestured us over to the doors. "I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I thought you'd want to know in advance." Her gaze fastened on my face and a shiver ran up my back. Yeah, something bad was coming.

The kids were here, my family was here, and Joe was here, so there couldn't be anything wrong with any of them. A sudden sweep of panic rushed over me. "The cats? The house? Did something happen?"

"No... nothing like that," she said.

"Then what? A ghost in the attic? A murderer on the rampage? Don't tell me Cathy Sutton's decided to film my wedding for KLIK-TV?" As far-fetched as they sounded, those possibilities were all too real for my comfort.

Mur grimaced. "Worse. Okay, here's the deal-" But before she could tell me, a voice interrupted our conversation and I knew she was right. This was worse than almost anything I could dream up.

"Aren't you going to say hello or are you playing the little snob today?"

Tone on edge, slightly patronizing. Oh yes, I knew that voice only too well. It was one I despised and dreaded every time it winged its way into my ears. I held my breath, hoping that I was wrong, but in my heart I knew I wasn't. I glanced at Mur, swallowing. She gave me a sympathetic smile, and I knew that there was no help for it. I had to face my nightmare come to life.

"So, you're getting married again. My feelings are hurt; you didn't invite me to your little shindig. I had to find out through our son. But then again, you always did specialize in playing the martyr, Emerald."

I slowly turned around, gritting my teeth. Please, oh please let me be wrong. But luck was a fickle mistress. There, in the doorway behind Murray, uninvited and unwanted, stood my ex-husband. Roy. And the smirk on his face told me we were in for a bumpy ride.

* * *

WHO AM I? Well, I'm Emerald O'Brien, I'm thirty-seven years old, and I own the Chintz ‘n China Tea Room, where we sell china, tea, cookies, jams, and gift baskets, and where the local matrons meet for a quiet cup and scone amidst their busy afternoons.

I'm also the mother of two incredible children-Kipling, my ten-year-old computer whiz, magic-loving, tumbling-his-way-onto-the-gymnastics-team son, and Miranda, who's fourteen going on thirty, and who can out-stargaze any astronomer she meets. She's going to land on the moon someday. Or Mars. I'm counting on it, and I have all the confidence in the world that she won't stop there. No, if there's a warp engine to discover or a new comet heading our way, Randa will be the first in line for accolades. To round out our family, we share our house with four cats-Samantha, a gorgeous calico, and her now-grown kittens, Nebula, Nigel, and Noël. We almost lost Samantha last year, so now they are all indoor-onlys, safe from predators and interdimensional rifts in time.

And then there's Joe. Joseph Ethan Files, to be precise. My fiancé, who happens to be ten years younger than I am. We fell in love a little over a year ago, and on Halloween-my birthday-he knelt down on a dark stormy night when I was in tears from a tragic and ghostly reunion I'd just witnessed, and he asked me to marry him. I said yes. We're getting married in a couple of weeks on the summer solstice, under the fading light of the evening sky in the gazebo flower garden that used to be the haunted, bramble-infested lot next to my house.

Oh, one more note. A little one, really, all things considered. I'm the village witch here in Chiqetaw, Washington, a small town off Highway 9 in Whatcom County. I no longer try to deny the claim, because I've finally accepted my place in the town. When the universe decided to slap a cosmic badge on me and call me the new sheriff, I resisted at first, but as the Borg say in the Star Trek realm, "Resistance is futile."

I've accepted my destiny. On the astral realm I fend off-and sometimes help-otherworldly visitors. And on the mundane, I've been the downfall of a few murderers and thieves.

If there's one thing the past couple years have taught me, it's that when fate comes knocking, you either open the door or the karma police bash it in. So, when the universe delivers me a new mission, I accept it, even if it seems impossible. As my Nanna taught me, there's usually a solution for every problem. You just have to ask the right question.

* * *

HOLY HELL. I closed my eyes, repressing a groan. Roy was out to ruin my evening. I knew it as sure as I knew my own name, and I planned on nipping that little prospect in the bud. "What the hell are you doing here?"

He blinked, his expression as guileless as usual. The man had a way of looking naïve and fresh off the turnip truck. Brilliant, he had appeared the epitome of the all-American boy when I first met him, and the look had stood the test of time. Pity his actions didn't follow suit. It wasn't until later that I'd learned the truth hiding behind those wide, innocent eyes.

"Kip invited me, so I thought I'd show up and see who on earth decided to put a ring on your finger."

Damn it. I knew Kip didn't expect-or even want-me to get back together with Roy, but sometimes that little goober did a good job of mucking things up. Kipling wanted his father's approval, a dream seldom realized. I had to hand it to him, though. He persevered. And chances were, Kip didn't think he'd done anything wrong. That was part of the problem with my son. He ran headlong into situations, acting first and only thinking it through later. As a result, Kip had managed to pull off some pretty big blunders for his age.

"Kip made a mistake and you should have known better. You're an adult, so give us all a break and act like one." I leaned in so I wouldn't be overheard. "I know you, Roy. The only reason you're here is to see what havoc you can cause. You're so miserable in your own life that you want everybody else to be miserable with theirs. I'm sorry Tyra left you, but it's your own fault."

Roy's second wife-the woman I caught him cheating with when we were married-had dumped him a few months ago. She'd mysteriously fallen and had a miscarriage. Having been on the wrong end of Roy's fists a couple of times, I suspected Roy had something to do with her fall, but she wasn't pressing charges. Unlike me, she'd just quietly demanded a sizable alimony. I'd asked for child support, and forced him to pay it, but I'd only asked for a settlement of our property and money on hand when we divorced. I didn't want anything from Roy that might chain him to me any tighter than the bonds forged because of our children.

He blinked. I'd managed a direct hit. "Fine, I'll be on my best behavior," he said. "Congratulations." He pushed past us and into the room before I had a chance to stop him.

I locked eyes with Murray. "This can't end on a good note, not with him here. He drinks, Mur. A lot."

She nodded. "I'll warn Jimmy and a couple of the boys to watch out for him." As she headed off to find Jimbo, I yanked Harlow's sleeve and grimaced.

"Let's go. I've got to reach Grandma McGrady before she sees Roy."

Harl's lip twitched. "What's she going to do? Talk him to death?"

I shook my head. "You don't understand. When I told her that I caught Roy screwing his mistress in Miranda's bedroom, and that Randa walked in on them, Grandma M. swore she'd rip out his heart. And Grandma M. has never threatened to do anything that she wasn't willing to carry through. Nanna was a ripsnorter, but Grandma McGrady's a bull chasing a red cape. And Roy is on her hit list."

Even as I spoke, I could hear Grandma's voice echoing over the crowd. Kip was pleading with her about something. Great, the fireworks had begun. Stifling a snicker, Harl slipped her arm through mine. "I just hope we don't get kicked out of here. Sounds like we're needed. Let's go."

My heart sank as we hurried across the dance floor. The last thing I wanted was for the party to turn into a brawl, especially in front of my children and customers. I'd managed to keep my prior life with Roy out of the spotlight, and I wanted it to stay that way.

Steeling myself, I waded into the mix only to be greeted by the sight of Grandma McGrady shaking her finger in Roy's face, while Kip tugged on her arm. Grandma M., dressed in a peach polyester pantsuit with her gray hair coiffed into a modern bob slicked to the sides of her head, had backed Roy against the wall next to the buffet.

"Roy William Patrick O'Brien, what in the world are you thinking of, showing up here? I told you before-come near my granddaughter again and I'll throw you out on your butt." Grandma M. didn't mince words, that was for sure, and her opinion of Roy was about as low as it could get.

Roy glared at her. "Grandma McGrady-"

Oops, goof number two. Number one was showing up at all.

"Don't you call me that. I am Mrs. McGrady to you. You gave up the right to call me Grandma when you decided you couldn't keep it in your pants and went gallivanting around behind Emerald's back. We're no longer related in any manner, and I would think you'd have the decency to mind your business-"

"Great-grandma! Please, he came ‘cause I told him about it. I didn't know he wasn't supposed to show up!" Kip tugged harder at her sleeve, and she turned to him, her lips pursed.

"Kipling, you're ten years old. That's old enough to know better-"

"Everybody pipe down!" Taking a deep breath, I entered the fray. Kip was on the verge of tears and whether or not I wanted Roy here didn't matter at this point. "Kip, honey, go with Harl and find your sister. Get something to eat, okay? I want to talk to your father and to your great-grandmother."

Kip sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. He forced a smile and nodded. "Okay, Mom. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to cause trouble."

I tousled his hair. "Oh, sweetie, I know you didn't. You never do. Now run on. Everything will be fine." At least Roy had the good graces to keep his mouth shut while Harlow led Kip away. After they were gone, I turned back to them. "Listen to me. I want you both to knock it off."

"Emerald! When were you taught that it's all right to speak to your grandmother this way? I can't believe that you've turned into such an ill-mannered-" Grandma looked about ready to pull her smelling salts routine.

I shrugged. "I wouldn't have to if the two of you hadn't decided to ruin my party. Now, let me talk to Roy. Alone."

She seemed to be debating the wisdom of arguing but then stomped off, threading her way through the crowd, no doubt on her way to rein in the cavalry. My mother, father, and sister would be here in full force in a few minutes. I sighed and looked up at Roy.

"Okay, buster. No," I warned him, holding up my hand as he started to speak. "You keep quiet for a change. Kip obviously thought you could behave yourself here. He made the silly mistake of thinking of you as an adult, probably because you're his father and he still wants to believe you have some shred of decency in you. I hate to disappoint our son, but I'm not about to allow you to ramrod your way through my life, including this party. So you have a choice. You can stay and act civilized. Or head for the door right now. Your move, buster. Make it quick."

For the first time that I could remember, Roy hesitated, rather than immediately launching into one of his diatribes. Hmm. What was up? Maybe losing Tyra had been the last blow needed to open his eyes. Maybe her desertion broke down his belief that he was the center of the universe.

After a moment, he shrugged and said, "What the hell. I guess we can be civil one night because of the kids."

The kids. My children. And, unfortunately, his children. Against my better judgment, I assented. "Okay. But if you get out of line, out you go. Capiche?"

Roy snorted, his hands jammed in his pockets. "You're a piece of work, all right. Okay, Emerald. Truce for now?"

Still doubting my decision, I slowly nodded. "Truce. Now, mingle, stick to safe topics, and leave unfashionably early, if you would." As I headed over to Joe and Jimbo, who were scowling at us, I had the feeling that my words had thudded against the side of a brick wall.

Grandma McGrady had spilled the beans to Joe about Roy's appearance. She might not approve of our age difference-me being older than Joe the operative problem-but she knew enough to plant the seeds of discord in the right place. And Murray had probably told Jimbo. Whatever the case, both men looked miffed.

"You're letting him stay?" Joe crossed his arms and cocked his head, his way of telling me that I'd slipped into reprehensible territory.

I filled him in on Kip's mistake. "I don't want my son seeing me throw his father out on his ass. I'm going to send the kids home with my mother, or Ida. Whoever I can corral first. Then I'll deal with Roy."

Jimbo grumbled. "I think he needs a lesson in etiquette."

I put my hand on the big guy's arm. "Hold off, okay? Both you and Joe simmer down. If he gets out of hand, then yeah, you two can clean him up, but let me get the kids out of the way first."

Joe rolled his eyes, but then, with a loud sigh, kissed the top of my head. "Whatever you say, babe. Go play Mama."

The Barry Boys were cranking it up again. Irritated, I wondered what it took to have a reasonably uneventful event. I wanted to enjoy myself, not field arguments and bullies and fights. I finally managed to corner Ida in the restroom. "Can you do me a huge favor and take the kids home?"

Ida glanced at the clock. "Of course, dear, but it's early yet. Has anything happened?"

I nodded. "My ex, Roy, showed up and I'm afraid there's going to be a testosterone match before long."

She patted me on the hand. "Don't worry. I'll gather them up and scoot them home. Do you want them to stay at my place?" Ida, a retired schoolteacher who put the proper in prim and proper, had been the kids' babysitter since I first moved to Chiqetaw. Along with Horvald, she was my closest neighbor. And though Randa no longer needed a lot of supervision, Kip was still a handful.

I shook my head. "We won't be too late, so they can go right home if they want. I'd just feel better with you on call."

As we stepped back into the banquet room, the sheer weight of everybody's emotions, both good and bad, hit me. I felt like bagging it, taking the kids home myself, and curling up on the sofa with a bad movie and a bowl of popcorn. Ida must have picked up on my sudden depression, because within five minutes the kids were not only ready, but willing to go with her. I didn't know how she worked her miracles, but I wasn't going to question them.

"Did you say good-bye to your father?" I asked.

"Yeah, he said he'll call us in the morning, but he wouldn't tell us when. He just said to stick around home until he does."

That was par for the course. Just like Roy to avoid calling, then show up unannounced and expect us to wrap our schedules around him like he was some sort of god.

"We'll talk about it in the morning," I said, then hugged both of them. "Go on now. Joe and I'll be home soon." As Ida and Horvald-our other neighbor, who was courting Ida in every proper sense of the word-headed out with the kids, I breathed a sigh of relief. At least now when the fireworks flew, the kids would be out of the way. And I had an awful feeling we'd soon be witnessing a brilliant show.

I turned to find my sister, Rose, waiting patiently. Rose was short like me, but fashionably thin and she had a pinched look to her mouth that made her look older than me even though she was a year or so younger.

"Emmy, I know that it's been a long evening, but I wanted to give you this. It's a sister-present." She held out a box.

I hesitated, then accepted the narrow velvet box. Rose and I might be the same height and have the same eyes, but there all resemblances ceased, personality included. She was the good girl, I was the wild child-at least according to Grandma M. Rose was generous, but every gift she gave came with strings attached. I glanced at her and she beamed. Maybe, I thought, maybe she really meant it this time. A sister-present.

I flipped the top on the box and gasped. Nestled on a bed of red velvet rested a faceted crystal necklace. The beads were bound together by bronze fasteners, and their surfaces glistened, sparkling with rainbows. Speechless, I lifted it out of the box and held it up to the light.

Rose broke into a wide smile. "Do you like it?"

"I love it!" And I did. It was so much my style that I wondered just how she'd picked it out. Everything she'd ever bought for me had ended up at the thrift store after spending a year in the back of my closet. As I looked at her expectant face, however, I pushed away my ungenerous thoughts. Maybe Rose wanted to mend fences, bridge the gap that had kept us on opposite shores since we were young.

"Here, let me put it on for you," she said, taking the necklace as she motioned for me to turn around. I unfastened the gold chain I was already wearing and slipped it into the box as she encircled my neck with her gift. "It's called the Bride's Circlet," she said. "The owner of the shop where I bought it said he thinks it's about a hundred and fifty years old, but he wasn't positive."

An antique? I didn't dare ask how much the necklace had cost her. Rose was well-to-do, thanks to her ever-absent salesman of a husband, but I still had the feeling this had set her back a little.

"Thank you," I whispered, then impulsively turned to give her a hug. As I did, I suddenly felt dizzy and swayed. She reached for my hand until I could balance myself.

"Are you okay?" she asked, looking worried.

I nodded. "Yeah, I just felt... a little weird. Like something shifted." Wonderful-a psychic quake. I wondered what was up, but didn't have time to focus on what had caused my vertigo because she launched into an unexpected monologue.

"I saw that and I thought, that has Emerald written all over it. I know I've been aloof for a while, but I'm so glad you wanted a big wedding with family and everything-we so seldom ever get together. It occurred to me that maybe we should hold a family reunion this autumn and all meet in Seattle or even over on the shoreline, Ocean Shores or Kalaloch or one of those resort areas. So, do you like the necklace?" Without skipping a beat, she fell silent, like a wind-up toy that had suddenly run down.

Still foggy from the vertigo attack and her sudden fountain of words, I nodded and held out my arms. "How about that hug now? I love it, Rosy. I really do. You're a sweetheart."

She stiffened for a moment, then relaxed into the embrace. "Anything for my big sister's wedding. I think this one will last," she added. "I like Joe a lot better than I did Roy. Grandma M.'s having a hissy fit over his age, but she told me-in secret, so don't you say anything-that she likes him. She thinks he's a ‘properly mannered young man' and that maybe he can ‘tame Emerald into behaving like a proper lady.' "

I sputtered for a moment, then burst out laughing. Rose joined me and for the first time in years, we giggled over a secret. Might we actually be able to develop a friendship after all of these years? We'd never had any official falling out, just one hell of a fight when we were young that put an end to our developing bond. After that we were polite, we sent cards and called once in a while, but Rose and I had nothing as strong as my connection with Murray.

I was about to tell her how glad I was that she'd come when a loud shout from the other end of the room caught my attention. I broke a path through the dancers and stepped into an opening near the buffet. Roy, beer in hand, stood nose-to-chin with Joe. By the look of the scattered bottles on the table, I figured Roy had made up for lost time. He was easily three sheets to the wind. The man never could hold his liquor, a problem that had become a serious issue as our marriage had disintegrated.

"Let me tell you a little about her," Roy was saying. "She got fat on me... she let her-her-herself go and she got fat on me."

"And let me tell you once again to shut your mouth or get out." Joe hadn't seen me yet. A good four inches taller than Roy, he was glaring down at him, the look in his eyes the closest I'd ever seen to violence.

"What the hell is going on?" I said. "Roy, you dolt! Do you have to cause trouble every time you're around?"

"Where are the kids?" he asked, looking around wildly. "I wanna tell them good night."

Shoving my way between the two men, I jabbed Roy in the chest with my finger. "I sent them home. It's time for you to leave, too. Call them when you're sober." I had no intention of setting him off, but then again, that's how it had always been-never knowing when he was going to blow his stack. Life with Roy had been a series of days spent walking on eggshells. Unfortunately, this turned out to be one of those times.

"Tell me to leave, will you? You're still the same bitch you were when I dumped you years ago! I should have taken the kids, you slut-" And just like that, in front of everyone, Roy took a swing at me. His open hand grazed my cheek before I realized what was happening.

Barely aware of the blow that set my ears ringing, I lost it. "You fucking bastard, you honestly think you can still get away with that? You've got a big lesson to learn, Roy, and one of these days, you're going to learn it the hard way."

Years of repressed anger fueling me, I lunged, shoving him hard. He landed on the main buffet table, right in the center of the two-tier cake shaped like a giant teapot. Before I could do or say another thing, Joe and Jimbo were bearing down on Roy, and they looked ready to kill.

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