Barb Goffman
Mystery Writer

A TALE OF TWO SISTERS

by Barb Goffman

Originally published in the anthology

Murder on the Beach

published in May 2021 by

Destination Murders

This story was nominated for the Agatha Award

and the Derringer Award.

My big sister, Emma, was no bridezilla, but heading into her wedding today, she’d been wound up so tight she was like a jack-in-the-box ready to spring. Would the photographer be on time? (Yes.) Would a baby cry during the ceremony? (Not so far.) Would our beloved, klutzy cousin Janelle trip on her bridesmaid’s dress as she walked down the aisle? (Yes, but she caught herself before she went splat, thank goodness.)

What’s amazing is Emma actually didn’t care about any of that. But our mother did. And even at age twenty-six, Emma’s stomach still twisted into knots whenever Mom wasn’t happy, which was basically anytime things didn’t go exactly as Mom wanted.

So Emma gave up her desired intimate ceremony and dinner back home in Chicago with twenty of her and Braden’s closest family and friends. Instead, here we were at a resort in Wisconsin, where Mom could impress people. Nearly two hundred friends, family, and folks Emma didn’t even know (read: friends of our parents and Braden’s) were staring while Rabbi Gelman, Emma, our parents, Braden, his parents and best-man brother, and I all crowded under the white chuppah. And my job as maid of honor had morphed. No longer Emma’s sole attendant and cheerleader, I now wore an invisible cape over my soft crepe dress. Call me Robin the Magnificent, self-appointed fixer of everything that could go wrong so my mother wouldn’t raise her right eyebrow—our family’s bat signal for “look out, Mom’s on the warpath!”—and my sister could enjoy her big day.

Thank you, Mom.

“And now it is time for the circling,” Rabbi Gelman said, his kind sapphire-blue eyes contrasting starkly with his pale, wrinkled skin. I hoped he’d stick around tomorrow to enjoy the beach. He could use some color, as could I. Between my job as a marketing coordinator and helping with the wedding plans this past summer, I didn’t get to the beach even once. I couldn’t wait to dig my toes into the soft, golden sand while sipping a cold Bud Light.

As Emma lifted the hem of her fit-and-flare gown, Rabbi Gelman explained the custom. “Traditionally, the bride would circle her groom seven times to symbolize the creation of a new family circle—their new world—similar to how God took seven days to create the world. But Emma and Braden have chosen a modern approach. They’ll each circle the other three times, and then they’ll both complete a circle together.”

Rabbi Gelman’s description hadn’t told the full story. Traditionally, circling was designed to create an invisible wall around the man, so he’d be protected in the future from “temptress women.” Even the thought of this sexist tradition riled me up. Were men expected—or permitted—to have no self-control unless their wives gave them magical protection? Most of my married friends skipped this custom during their weddings. Emma claimed she wanted to do it, to create her own family circle, but I bet Mom pressured her into it. If anyone ever suggested I needed to circle my woman seven times to keep her from straying, I’d raise my own right eyebrow and inform them that I’d never marry anyone whose head might be turned so easily.

Finally, the horrid circling ended. Time to move on to the blessing over the wine. Much more my speed.

“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, king of the universe, who created the fruit of the vine.” Rabbi Gelman said the blessing in his rumbly voice, first in Hebrew, then in English, before handing the cup to Braden and to Emma.

I took a moment to peek into the audience. My fiancée, Natalie, sat in the third row. Between her newly dyed black hair and the makeup she was wearing—purchased for this very occasion, as she’d owned none—I barely recognized her. She caught my eye and winked. It was the same flirty move that had attracted me three years ago during our senior year of college. Smiling, I twirled a strand of my swooshed-over wavy brown hair, just like I’d done the night we met.

“And now,” Rabbi Gelman said, “it is time for the vows.”

Vows aren’t part of a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, yet everyone I know has included them. Emma and Braden wrote their own vows, but they decided that their feelings for each other were too personal. So rather than share them now in front of a thousand of their nearest and dearest (I know I said it was two hundred guests, but looking out into the ballroom, I could swear the crowd had swelled), they planned to say them to one another a few minutes from now, when they’d be alone right after the ceremony. Once they walked back down the aisle, it would be time for the yichud—when the newly married couple spends a few peaceful minutes alone in a secluded room. Emma and Braden planned to drink champagne, eat strawberries, and share their personal vows then. For now, in front of all these people, generic ones would do.

“Do you, Braden, take Emma to be your lawfully wedded wife, to love, honor, and cherish all the days of your life?” Rabbi Gelman asked.

“I do.” Braden’s dimples appeared as he smiled, and I remembered the first time Emma told me about him three years ago. She raved about how smart and kind he was, but what had really attracted her were those dimples. “Hubba hubba,” she’d said, fanning herself.

The best thing about Braden—besides his dimples—was that he had Emma’s back. His calm countenance would serve him and Emma well, especially when he got to see Mom in her full overbearing glory. He thought he knew what she was like, but she’d actually been on relatively good behavior in his presence up until now. In a few minutes, he’d be one of us, and no number of warnings will have prepared him for an unleashed Stella Weiss.

“Do you, Emma, take Braden to be your lawfully wedded husband, to love, honor, and cherish all the days of your life?”

This was the moment she’d been looking forward to for so long. I hoped the videographer was capturing it because memories fade, yet Emma’s joy deserved to be remembered, especially considering all the duds she dated before Braden came along. Her smile stretched into a grin, and when Braden dimpled back at her, she giggled, causing a wisp of her long brown hair to slide against her cheek. Her voice had a soft, lilting quality, and as she laughed the aquamarines and diamonds in her tiara caught the sunlight streaming through the window and glittered, as if they were blessing this union. “I do.”

Braden took Emma’s hand and slipped a gold band onto her finger, repeating the rabbi’s words: “With this ring you are consecrated to me according to the laws of Moses and Israel.”

Emma slid a gold band onto his finger, repeating the same words, and Mom sobbed loudly. What do you know—a baby had cried during the ceremony after all.

Rabbi Gelman then read aloud the ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract Emma and Braden signed before the ceremony. The ketubah outlines the protections the wife has in the marriage. Its focus is on the wife because in olden times, the husband held all the cards. Of course, times had changed, but since Braden supposedly held all the cards, Emma said she liked having her very own trump card. (Too bad for Emma, she had a little of Mom in her. I was lucky to be more like Dad.)

Finally, Rabbi Gelman explained the ritual of the man breaking a glass at the conclusion of the ceremony—another male-centered tradition. But as Emma said about circling, traditions can change. When Natalie and I get married, she’ll want to smash the glass to smithereens, and nobody will be able to stop her.

“There are many interpretations of this ancient custom,” Rabbi Gelman said. “Some people believe it represents the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Others believe the shattered glass represents the fragility of love and the care the marriage needs to keep it strong. And,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “there is a contingent who believe that the glass serves as a reminder that this is the last time the man will get to put his foot down.”

Everyone laughed, even my dad, who knew the truth of those words all too well.

“Emma and Braden,” Rabbi Gelman continued, “believe when he smashes the glass, it will symbolize a break with the past. From then on, they will put their newly formed family above all others. Having watched Emma grow up, it doesn’t surprise me that she and Braden would take this view, for Emma has always been a girl—and now a woman—who values her family above all.”

The rabbi put a lightbulb into a cloth bag and set it on the floor. (Lightbulbs make a more satisfying popping sound than glasses do; they’re easier to break too.) Braden stomped on it, spurring cheers of “mazel tov” from the audience as my sister had her first kiss as a married woman.

A sigh of relief escaped my lips. Finally, we could relax. Fingers crossed, it would all be smooth sailing from here.

#

While Emma and Braden enjoyed their quiet time together, and almost everyone else hustled into the ballroom next door for cocktail hour, it was picture time for the wedding party. It felt like we’d been at it for hours by the time Emma and Braden joined our fun. At least, that’s what my rumbling stomach thought. Mom had kept me hopping all day, helping her make sure everything would go perfectly, so I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

Eventually we made our way out to the beach for some “candid shots.” I couldn’t imagine how they possibly could be candid when we knew they were being taken and our poses were suggested, but a photobombing golden retriever who missed peeing on me by inches proved me wrong.

Finally the photographer let everyone but the happy couple go. I brushed the sand off and hurried to the ballroom, thinking about the appetizers. Natalie was waiting for me by the door. For a woman who didn’t like to wear dresses or heels, she was rocking the plum A-line sleeveless number that fell just above her knobby knees. It showed off her toned calves and pumped arms.

“I caught some of the photo shoot through the window,” she said. “Cute pooch.”

“Adorable.”

She handed me a glass of merlot (I knew I loved her for a reason), and we started walking. I tried several times to score an appetizer—or three—from a passing server, but they were always gobbled up by the hungry hordes before I got close enough.

“Has everything been going okay?” I asked. Natalie had promised to be my eyes and ears during picture time.

“Just fine. As soon as the appetizers began circulating, Stella seemed calm.”

“She must have gotten something to eat.”

Natalie laughed as we neared one of the walls of windows overlooking the beach. Beyond the sand, Lake Michigan shimmered in the fading sunlight, with storm clouds gathering on the horizon.

“It’s beautiful here,” Natalie said. “I know this isn’t the wedding Emma wanted, but she looked really happy during the ceremony.”

“Yeah, she did. How long do you think it will take before Mom says, ‘I told you so?’”

“You mean Stella hasn’t said that already?”

I laughed and clinked my glass to hers. “Touché.”

The loudspeaker buzzed, and the DJ’s voice filled the room. “Ladies and gentlemen, please turn your attention to the main doors. Let’s give a warm welcome for the very first time to Mr. and Mrs. Braden Roth.”

As applause rang out, they strolled into the ballroom holding hands. Emma’s tiara didn’t glitter as much under the lights in this room, but her eyes sure did. Tony Bennett’s “The Way You Look Tonight” began playing, and they made their way to the dance floor. Emma melted into Braden as they swayed. It wasn’t the eye-catching number my mom had pushed for. (If I had a dollar for every time she said “nothing is classier than a waltz,” I could move into this resort.) But when Braden claimed a few months ago to have two left feet, Mom had been forced to back off. I’d bet anything she’d be checking out how well those feet moved tonight.

“They are such an adorable couple,” said a gray-haired woman standing a few feet away.

“And her wedding gown is to die for,” another woman replied, adjusting the strap of the black quilted purse hanging on her shoulder. “Do you think it’s satin?”

“Oh, it’s satin,” my aunt Hazel said, butting in. I hadn’t noticed her standing nearby. She was wearing a sparkly silver dress that matched her hair, shoes, jewelry, and eyeshadow. She’d always been a fan of the monochromatic look, but this was taking things to extremes. “I’m the bride’s aunt, so I’ve heard all about the dress, which is the latest style. In fact, I played an instrumental role in Emma’s outfit today. That’s my tiara she’s wearing, with aquamarines surrounded by diamonds.” Aunt Hazel raised her chin proudly. “In one fell swoop, I covered old, borrowed, and blue.”

I rolled my eyes at Natalie. Bragging ran in Mom’s family, though it had skipped my generation, thank goodness.

“Wow,” Purse Lady said.

“It’s a family heirloom,” Aunt Hazel said. “It was one of the few items my grandmother took with her when she and her family escaped from Germany in 1939. She wore it at her wedding, as did her grandmother and mother before her. Eventually my mother and I both wore it too, as the oldest daughters.”

“And now you’ve given it to your niece. How lovely.”

From the way Aunt Hazel recoiled, you’d think Purse Lady had suggested she’d donated her only kidney. “Oh no. Only lent it to her. I’m saving it for my first granddaughter.”

“I adore family traditions like that,” Purse Lady’s friend said.

While Aunt Hazel smiled, I suppressed a laugh. She and Uncle George had one child, my cousin Scott, who was standing across the room with his husband, Tristan, both in blue suits with white shirts and pale-pink bowties. Scott’s suit was deep blue, which complemented his flawless pale skin. (He must have had work done. No one in their thirties looks that good without a little help.) Tristan’s suit was a bold blue that befitted his personality as well as his spiky blond hair. Aunt Hazel knew darn well Scott and Tristan didn’t want children, and since they’re gay, there was no chance it would happen accidentally. But it was easier for Aunt Hazel to pretend she might get a granddaughter one day—repeatedly saying “people can change their minds”—than to admit to these strangers that if she had no direct female descendant to leave the tiara to, she planned to be buried in it. I thought Mom would have a stroke when Aunt Hazel told her that last year.

A couple of minutes later, after Purse Lady and her friend headed toward the bar, Aunt Hazel came over. She was nibbling a lamb chop she’d snagged from one of the servers milling around, providing food to everyone, it seemed, but me. My mouth watered just looking at it.

“Did you notice that knockoff Chanel handbag?” She nodded at Purse Lady. “I can’t believe she brought it to a fancy affair.”

Heavens no.

“How do you know it’s fake?” Natalie asked.

“Oh, I can tell.”

Of course she could. Aunt Hazel was a self-proclaimed expert about everything.

“Robin,” Natalie whispered, “two o’clock.”

I shifted my eyes in time to see Mom threading her way between the tables, headed straight for us. Her face was as red as the dye in her hair.

“Do you see what’s going on out there?” she whispered furiously when she reached my side, motioning toward the dance floor.

I glanced that way, half expecting to find someone doing a striptease. But all I saw was Emma dancing with Dad while Braden danced with his mom. “What am I missing, Mom?”

“He twirled her.”

“What?”

“Mr. Two Left Feet twirled his mother. Look! He just did it again.”

Lord save me. The evening had barely begun, and we’d already pulled into Crazy Town. “What do you want me to do about it, Mom? Should I cut in and stomp on his foot?”

“No, of course not.”

Finally, a little sanity—

“That would be too obvious,” Mom continued. “Everyone knows you’re a wonderful dancer.”

That’s why I shouldn’t do it? I rolled my eyes. I’d probably be doing that a lot tonight. “Thanks,” I said half-heartedly.

“You should thank me, since I’m the one who made you continue with dance lessons when you wanted to quit to play Little League.”

“Little League would have made me happy.”

“Little League was for boys.”

“Could you be more sexist?”

“Robin.” Natalie lightly squeezed my shoulder, and I immediately took a calming breath. Thirty seconds in Mom’s presence and I’d reverted back to my thirteen-year-old self.

“I see you’re getting along with your daughter again, Stella,” Aunt Hazel said. “If only you weren’t so controlling, you could enjoy this lovely evening.”

Oh good, another country heard from.

“Controlling?” Mom’s brown eyes narrowed, her brow furrowed, and her right eyebrow stretched so far toward her hairline, you’d think it was being pulled by a fishhook. The trifecta of anger. Uh oh. “At least I’m not selfish.”

“Selfish?” Aunt Hazel said.

“You heard me.”

Aunt Hazel planted her hands on her ample hips. “Just what have I been selfish about?”

“You know damn well.”

Steam practically erupted from Aunt Hazel’s pores. “That tiara is mine, and I’m under no obligation to give it your daughter!”

“No, you would rather wear it to the grave. A fifty-thousand dollar tiara!”

“It’s my right!”

“That’s crap and you know it. The tiara is supposed to go to the oldest daughter of the next generation, and that’s Emma!”

“Mom,” I whispered, “lots of people are listening.”

She gawked at the staring faces around us—relatives, friends of the family, and a whole bunch of folks I didn’t know—as if she’d forgotten where she was. Well, she had wanted to put on a show tonight. Thankfully, Emma hadn’t seemed to notice. She was still dancing with Dad, a goofy smile on her face.

“This isn’t over,” Mom said to Aunt Hazel before storming off.

Aunt Hazel sighed loudly as she turned to me. “Who does she think she’s fooling?”

“I really don’t want to get into the middle of this tiara tussle, Aunt Hazel.”

“Who’s talking about the tiara? I was referring to that dye job your mother’s got, as if anyone would believe a woman nearly sixty years old would have hair naturally that color.”

Wow. “Could you try to make nice with Mom tonight? Please? For Emma.”

Uncle George sidled up to Aunt Hazel, smoothing crumbs from his white mustache. He’d gotten to eat too. “Don’t worry, honey,” he said. “She’ll be on her best behavior from here on out, right?”

Aunt Hazel shrugged. “I guess I can fake it. There’s so much of that happening here anyway.” She stared pointedly at the back of a woman standing nearby. “I asked her about her shoes earlier,” she whispered. “She claimed they’re Louboutin, but as soon as I saw her walking, I could see they’re knockoffs. The soles aren’t red.”

“Let’s bump her off now,” I said.

Uncle George mouthed “sorry” over his shoulder as he pulled Aunt Hazel away. Natalie handed me a flute of champagne. “You look like you could use it.”

“Bless you.” It wasn’t food, but it would do.

The song changed to John Legend’s “All of Me,” and Braden returned to Emma.

“Everyone’s invited to the dance floor,” the DJ announced.

Natalie offered her hand and led the way. This sweet song always made me feel good. As we rocked back and forth, Natalie said, “Do you think your uncle George will be able to keep your mom and aunt apart tonight?”

“I hope so, for Emma’s sake.”

Mom and Aunt Hazel loved each other, but there were always fireworks before those two made up. I just hoped they didn’t rain down tonight on Emma—or me.

#

“All of Me” segued into some pop songs. Then “Hava Nagila” began playing. This Israeli folk song was a staple at Jewish celebrations. Some people clapped along to the song, as a group gathered in the center of the floor for the hora, clasping hands and dancing in a circle.

Soon Braden’s brothers pulled two chairs onto the dance floor, and with the help of some additional guests, Emma and Braden were hoisted up on the chairs. Up and down, up and down to the music, while the circle dancing continued around them, everyone celebrating the happy couple. Emma wasn’t wearing her tiara anymore. Without it, her hair was flying. As she laughed, she let go of the sides of the chair to push her hair behind her ears. Heights sometimes made me queasy, and I had to fight not to yell, Hang on. It would be easy to fall off that chair.

After a minute or so, Emma and Braden were lowered to the ground. Emma ran to me and grabbed my hand. “Come on!” She pulled me to the center of the circle. “You’re going up,” she yelled over the music.

“Excuse me?”

“Remember my promise?”

Dear Lord. The chair dance also happened at bar and bat mitzvahs. I’d skipped my own hoisting at my bat mitzvah a decade ago because I’d faked an upset stomach. Emma had told me multiple times afterward how sorry she was I’d missed out and promised I could go up on a chair at her wedding. I’d always thought she was kidding.

“Oh no,” I said. “Not necessary.”

“Yeah, it is. It’s happening.”

And before I knew it, I was being lifted into the air. Up and down and up and down. It was a rollercoaster without seatbelts. I hung on to that chair like my life depended on it—which it likely did. Oh yeah, this was a ton of fun. I once got seasick on a family vacation, and Dad told me to focus on the horizon. It had worked then, so I forced myself to look out into the ballroom instead of at the people singing and dancing around me below, like I was a virgin sacrifice about to be thrown into a volcano.

It was a beautiful room, with gilt-edged plates sitting on cranberry tablecloths that matched the bridesmaids’ dresses. Soft red and pink dahlias sat in tall glass centerpieces. Emma and Braden’s small table for only the two of them—the “sweetheart table”—had a tall arrangement of roses, beneath which Emma had left the tiara. The wait staff was bringing out the communal baskets of warm rolls to put on each table. I love rolls, and I was starving, but the thought of them right now… Taking deep breaths, trying desperately to settle my stomach, I shifted my eyes and—no freaking way. Someone had just swiped the tiara and was walking casually toward the door, obviously trying not to attract attention.

I pointed repeatedly at the floor, yelling “down, down,” but the music was loud and the guys below me must have been in the zone because when I neared the floor, before I could safely jump, back up I went. I was literally watching a crime in action and couldn’t do anything about it. The thief was dressed for the wedding. Had to be a guest. Tall. Medium-build. Brown hair. There was nothing distinguishing about him from the back.

Nearing the floor again, I prepared to vault off the chair, when someone took a photo and the flash blinded me. Son of a… When I finished blinking, I was up in the air again and the thief was leaving the ballroom.

“Let me down,” I screamed.

Someone must have heard me that time because the sadistic game of human yo-yo ended, even as the singing and dancing continued. I slid off the chair, ever grateful for solid ground, and Emma hurried over. “What’s wrong? Didn’t you have fun?”

I couldn’t tell her the truth. It would ruin the wedding. I’d have to find the tiara before she noticed it was missing.

“You know me and heights. My stomach felt like I’d swallowed a fish tank.”

She hugged me. “I’m sorry. I thought you’d enjoy it.”

“I did. In the beginning.” I gave her a reassuring smile, which she seemed to buy.

“Come dance?”

“I need to get some fresh air.”

“Okay. Love you.”

She hugged me before Braden pulled her into the circle, and I hurried off to the hall.

#

I burst through the doors. The area right outside the ballroom had a seating area perfect for introverts who needed a break—I might camp out there later—but the hallway was empty except for a middle-aged hotel employee clearing some glasses left on the table.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Did you see a man leave the ballroom a couple of minutes ago?”

“No, ma’am. I’m sorry,” she said.

Shoot.… Wait a minute. Ma’am? I was nowhere near old enough to be ma’amed, especially by someone older than me. I took a breath. Focus, Robin.

“But I did hear the door to that stairwell close as I came around the corner,” she said, pointing.

Yes!  “Thank you.”

I hurried off and opened the door. Halfway up the stairs, a couple was making out, with her back—and dress—pushed up against the iron railing. This was a hotel, for goodness sake. How hard would it be to get a room? “Don’t mind me,” I said as I started up.

They flew apart. Her lipstick was smeared, and his chin was quivering in fear. Holy cow. It was my married cousin Adam­—and my klutzy cousin Janelle! Thank God they were from different sides of the family.

“Robin,” he said, smoothing down his brown hair. “This isn’t what it looks like.”

I tilted my head in a who-are-you-kidding look. Unless she’d been choking and he’d been trying to extract the offending item with his tongue, it was exactly how it looked. Just three years ago, his wife walked around him seven times at their wedding. So much for magical protection.

“Okay, fine. It’s how it looks,” he said, throwing his hands out. My dad’s side of the family was filled with people who gesticulated whenever they spoke. “But you can’t judge until you’ve been inside a marriage.”

Whatever, dude. “It’s not my place to judge.” Not out loud, anyway. “Did you see someone go up these stairs a couple of minutes ago?”

“Jason was heading up the stairs when we came in here,” he said.

His older brother. I was going to kill him. “You know what room he’s staying in?”

“He’s in two fourteen,” Janelle said.

Adam and I both stared at her. I didn’t want to know why she knew that.

“Thanks.” I started up the stairs again, then looked over my shoulder. “Go back to the party. The only person who should be consummating today is Emma!”

A minute later I banged on Jason’s door. No response. “Open up. It’s Robin. I know you’re in there.” Still no response. “Jason!” I pounded some more, the sound echoing down the hall.

The door opened. Jason stood there with his wavy hair messier than usual and his shirt untucked. “Sorry. I took a nap and overslept. I’ve been hurrying to get dressed. Did I miss the ceremony?”

Oh, he was good. I might have believed him if I didn’t know better.

“Your brother already ratted you out.”

“What?”

“He saw you going up the stairs…with the tiara!”

Yeah, I lied. But he asked for it.

He stomped his foot. “That kid has been a pain in my behind since the day he was born. You don’t know what it was like growing up with him. Mr. Perfect.”

Yeah, he’s not so perfect.

I held out my hand. “The tiara. Now.”

“Come on, Robin. I need the money. My business is in trouble.”

“Not my problem.”

“But your aunt’s gonna be buried with it. I heard the argument, and your mom’s right. Something so valuable should go to good use, not be used as worm food.”

“A thief arguing ethics? Really?”

“I’ll split the money with you.” He clapped his hands together in supplication. “Please. It can be our secret.”

“Give me the tiara right now or I’m going to tell my mother what you’ve done.”

His eyes widened. “All right, all right!” He ran into the room and pulled it out of his suitcase. “You don’t have to get nasty about it.”

He grabbed his jacket, approached the door, and gave me the tiara. “So you’ll keep this quiet?”

If Emma found out a thief—because that’s what Jason was—had absconded with the tiara because she’d left it at her table, it would ruin her night and her memories of the wedding. Neither Mom nor Aunt Hazel would ever let her forget it, so I’d take this secret to my grave. But Jason didn’t have to know that.

“There’s going to be a limbo contest later,” I said. “You’re going to try real hard to win.”

“Limbo? I hate limbo.”

“Everybody hates limbo, except Emma and Braden. He thought it would be fun, and when Braden is happy, Emma is happy. You want Emma to be happy.”

He sighed. “Fine. Limbo.” He slammed the door behind us. “But if I hurt my back, I might need that tiara to pay for the doctor bills.”

“Yeah, yeah. Keep walking.”

#

 I peeked inside the ballroom. People were still dancing. I hustled to Emma’s table with the tiara behind my back, made sure no one was watching, and slipped it on the table. Whew.

The song ended. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the DJ said, “please find your seats. Your salads are being served.”

Natalie and I reached our table at the same time. “Where’ve you been?” she asked.

“You won’t believe it.”

“Let’s give a warm round of applause for Braden’s grandpa Fred,” the DJ said.

“I’ll fill you in later,” I whispered.

Fred settled a royal-blue yarmulke on his head as he approached the microphone. His white hair was surprisingly thick for a man in his eighties. He said the prayers over the wine and challah. Yes, thank you, God, for the sweet, eggy bread, and please bring some my way.

Then Fred walked over to Emma and Braden, bent down, and kissed them each on the cheek. When Braden stood and hugged him, I blinked back tears, wishing my grandparents had lived to see this day. They would have loved it—and they would have been able to put Mom and Aunt Hazel in their places.

Braden’s brother and best man, Michael, gave his toast next. Then finally it was my turn. This would my last official maid-of-honor duty of the night. I went to the microphone and gazed out into the ballroom. Servers were coming around, setting out mixed-greens salads and refilling wine glasses, which gleamed in the lights. Emma sat snuggled next to Braden, her head on his shoulder. Their sweetheart table was small, with only enough room for the plates and glasses. Emma had moved the tiara and floral centerpiece to a small empty table behind her, beside the wall.

“It’s my joy to be here tonight to share in Emma and Braden’s celebration. As Emma’s little sister, we spent a lot of time as kids dreaming about what our lives would be like when we grew up. Would we live in a castle like Cinderella? Or save the world like Katniss Everdeen?”

A few guests were walking around, one heading to the bar, another to the door closest to the restroom. They couldn’t have waited? I’d be done soon enough.

“You won’t be surprised that Emma and I always assumed we’d do both things. But the third important question always was, would we live happily ever after with our very own Prince—or Princess—Charming standing by our sides.” I beamed at Natalie. “Well, I’m still holding out for my own castle, but I’m delighted to say that for my big sister, the wait for Prince Charming is over. I knew it the first time she told me about Braden because she literally fanned her face and said, ‘hubba hubba.’”

Emma covered her cheeks in embarrassment as laughter rang out.

“But seriously, I knew Braden was the perfect person for Emma because of the way she sparkled from the moment they met.”

I kept talking, I know I did, but I don’t know what I said from then on because I got distracted. My cousin Scott had slipped down the row right behind Emma, snatched the tiara with the ease of a big-city pickpocket, and slid it beneath his unbuttoned jacket as he sauntered toward the door.

Are you freaking kidding me?

#

I couldn’t run after him or shout “stop, thief” because, once again, I couldn’t ruin the wedding. But at least this time I knew who the thief was. I’d still have to find and reclaim the tiara pretty fast though, before Emma noticed it was missing.

“To Emma and Braden!” I raised my glass and heard a chorus of “to Emma and Braden” in return. Then I took a sip. I would have loved to chug it—boy, did I need it—but I needed to keep a clear head more.

“Ladies and gentleman,” the DJ said. “Please enjoy your dinner. I’ll be back with more music afterward.”

I hustled to my table, slid into my chair, and leaned toward Natalie. “No one can know what I’m about to tell you,” I whispered. “Keep your expression neutral.”

She gave me side-eye. “Okay, Double O Seven.”

All the bridesmaids and their plus-ones at the table were either chatting or eating. Still, I continued to whisper: “My cousin Scott just stole his mom’s tiara.”

Her eyes widened in a no way look.

“Is that neutral?” I sighed. “Anyway, this is on top of my cousin Jason stealing it during the hora. I got it back right before we sat down.”

“Seriously? That’s where you were? You have one effed-up family.”

“Tell me about it. I need you to keep an eye on Emma. She doesn’t know the tiara’s gone. She left it sitting on the little table behind her, by the roses. If you see her start to search for it, or God forbid you see my mother realize it’s gone, go spill the beans so they don’t freak out. Tell Emma I’m on the case, and she doesn’t have to worry.” I stared at the ceiling. “Please let her not notice.”

Natalie saluted me. “Go forth and kick butt.”

#

I scurried to the table where Scott’s husband, Tristan, was eating his salad—mixed greens with cranberries and cheddar cheese because: Wisconsin. “Hey,” I said casually as I crouched beside him, breathing in his woody cologne. “You know where Scott is?”

“Forgot his cigarettes. He went to our room to get ’em. Why?”

“I’d like to ask him something—”

“What? Can I help?”

Ummmm. I couldn’t tell if he knew what Scott had done.

“Would you look at her?” Aunt Hazel said from across the table. She’d nudged Uncle George as she stared behind me. “Like she’s fooling anyone with those fake knockers.”

I couldn’t help myself. I looked. Aunt Hazel was right. No way those things were real. In my experience with boobs, and I had a fair amount, really skinny women like that chick don’t have Dolly Parton breasts.

Hmmm. “I’m thinking about having some work done,” I told Tristan. “I’ve started to sag, and I heard he knows a really good plastics guy.” Heard. Guessed. Same difference.

“Sag? You’re what? Twenty-six? Twenty-seven?”

“Twenty-four! And it can happen at my age when you’re…well-endowed.”

He stared at my chest. “You look fine to me.”

“What do you know? Have you even seen any up close? I’m saggy I tell you!” I might have said it a little loud. Aunt Hazel glanced my way, as did several other people. Great. In an hour everyone would know. And it wasn’t even true! “Anyway, I’d like to talk to Scott without prying ears.”

He shrugged. “If he’s not on the deck, you can check our room. Three sixteen.”

“Thanks.”

Scott might have gone out on the deck already to smoke, having stashed the tiara. I stepped outside and shivered. Boy, the wind had picked up, which explained why no one was out there.

“Shhhh!”

Or was I wrong? My heels clicked against the wooden planks as I approached the stairs down to the beach. I saw someone below scurry into the darkness. If it was Scott, who was he talking to? Was he cheating on his spouse too?

“I saw what you did,” I called as I started down the stairs. “You should come out.” No response. “If you make me get sand in my shoes, you’re going to regret it.” I actually regretted coming out there at all because sand was blowing right at me, landing in my hair and on my face and down my dress. But I’d come this far. “Last chance. Come out or I’m going to tell my mother.”

“No, please, no!”

The threat of Stella Weiss worked again. If only I could bottle the fear Mom inspired.

My twin teenage cousins, Chloe and Olivia, jumped out into the light, barefoot and holding a half-empty bottle of vodka they must have swiped from the bar. This was not the theft I was interested in.

“Please don’t rat us out,” Chloe said. “It’s just so boring in there.”

I wish. “Have you seen Scott out here?”

They shook their heads, their long brown hair swishing in the wind. Maybe he was still in his room. I turned to go inside as rain began to fall.

“Wait,” Olivia yelled. “Are you going to tell?”

I was supposed to do the right thing. Teach them a lesson. Keep them safe. Yadda yadda yadda. But it wasn’t that long ago that I was underage, and I liked being the cool cousin. “I have three conditions.”

“What?” Chloe asked.

“First, you promise to never drink and drive or get in the car with someone who’s been drinking.”

“Okay,” she said.

“Second, if Natalie or I ask for your help later tonight, you give it, no questions asked.”

“Will do.”

“And third, when the limbo game starts, you both join in and act like you’re having fun.”

“Limbo?” Olivia said. “That’s lame.”

I raised my right eyebrow.

“We’re in,” Chloe said.

“Fine,” Olivia said. “What are you going to need help with anyway?”

“That sounds like a question to me,” I said.

“Sorry.”

Right then the heavens really opened up. I dashed up the steps, hearing movement on the deck. Scott? But when I reached the top, I didn’t see him. Eager to get out of the rain, which had begun blowing sideways, I opened the door and heard running behind me.

“Robin, look out!”’

I turned. The golden retriever that nearly peed on me this afternoon was sprinting straight at me from the other end of the deck. He must smell the food inside. Mom had sprung for the beef tenderloin to impress the relatives. A dog running through the reception would definitely not impress them.

With barely a second to spare, I bent into a catcher’s stance to block him from going inside. Bam! The dog knocked me flat on my butt, then scrambled over me to dart into the ballroom. Maybe if Mom had let me play Little League this wouldn’t have happened.

“Stop that dog,” I yelled.

Olivia and Chloe jumped over me—they should run hurdles—and ran inside. I followed. We all stood there dripping wet, looking around. Some guy at the closest table pointed his fork and said, “He went that way.”

“Come on.” I hurried as quickly as I could without calling attention to myself, as if three drenched women weren’t going to turn some heads. Thank God Mom and Emma weren’t sitting nearby.

“There he is.” Chloe pointed.

The soaked pup was trotting past some tables, his nose to the ground. He seemed on a mission. But to where?

And then I realized his destination. Oh no. There was an empty chair at a table full of people eating their dinners, and right in the middle of the isolated place setting was a plate with baby roasted potatoes, mixed vegetables, and one delicious-looking steak.

I double-timed it. Or tried to. But these heels were made for walking, not running, and I reached the table just in time to see the dog leap onto the chair, sink his teeth into the steak, and bolt toward the hallway.

“Is that your dog?” The woman sitting beside the empty chair looked indignant.

Yes, I always bring my dog to fancy affairs. That wouldn’t bother my mother at all.

“No, he probably belongs to someone staying at the state park a couple of miles from here.” Some careless person whom I’d happily kill. “He ran inside when I opened the door.”

“That’s great. Now my husband has no dinner.”

“No dinner?” A large man—in height and width—loomed over me, and he sounded sad. Another problem to deal with.

“Chloe, there should be a steak waiting for me at table four. Go get my plate, please, and bring it to this man. And for all that is holy, do not let my mother see you.”

“Don’t worry.” From the fear in her eyes, Chloe understood the importance of stealth on this mission.

“I can’t take your dinner,” the man said.

“You’re welcome to it,” I said. “I couldn’t eat tonight anyway. Dieting.” Or, rather, it seemed I wouldn’t eat tonight. Not a single morsel.

“Thanks. I’ll be sure to tell Emma what you did for me.”

Oh no no no. I forced a smile. “Please don’t do that. It would upset her to hear a dog ran through the reception and stole your food. Could this be our little secret?”

“Sure. I guess.”

“Great.” I started toward the hall, then turned back. “How do you know who I am? Do I know you?”

“Nah. I work with Emma. She has a photo of the two of you on her desk.”

How sweet. Emma was worth every moment of this horrible evening.

Chloe returned with the steak. It smelled so good I nearly drooled. “Come on, girls.”

In the hallway I said, “You’re both in charge of making sure that dog doesn’t get back into the ballroom tonight.”

“Is this the help you were talking about before?” Olivia asked.

I gaped at her. Did she really think I’d expected a dog to run off the beach, into the ballroom, steal a steak, and make a run for it? She gazed back at me expectantly. It seemed she did.

“Yep. That’s what I was talking about.”

“There he is,” Chloe said.

The dog stood several yards away. He stared at us. We stared at him. I padded toward him slowly, the girls following. He came toward us, also slowly. It was like a showdown at the O.K. Corral, but I had backup.

“He’s wearing a collar,” I said. “Whichever one of us has the opportunity, grab that collar and hold on tight.”

“I don’t see the steak,” Olivia said. “He must have eaten it already. He might be easier to catch if he’s full.”

“Yeah, but he was heading back to the ballroom,” Chloe said. “Maybe he wants seconds.”

“Not on my watch,” I said.

We inched closer and closer. “On three,” I said. “One. Two. Thr—”

And that’s when the dog started shaking. A veritable waterfall of rainwater—and maybe Lake Michigan too—flew off of him, right onto me. It was a clever ploy on his part because we were all so stunned, we stood there as a puddle grew beneath me, giving him time to dash past us toward the ballroom.

“Get that dog,” I yelled.

Chloe and Olivia took off while I shook myself. Turns out that drying method doesn’t work with people. If I ever learned who owned that dog, I would kill them.

I squeezed some water from my hair and pumped myself up for round three of Catch That Dog when the elevator dinged. I twirled around, and out walked my other prey.

Scott.

#

I hoped Chloe and Olivia could deal with the golden themselves because I wasn’t going to let Scott get away again.  

I approached him with a furrowed brow and narrowed eyes. I even tried to do a full-on raised right eyebrow. I must have pulled it off because he cringed.

“Why are you all wet?” he said.

Darn. Maybe that’s why he cringed. But I would not be deterred from my mission. “Where’ve you been, Scott?”

He paused. That was his tell. He always paused before he lied. “Had to make a phone call.”

“Really? I thought you were going out on the deck for a smoke. That’s where Tristan thought you went.”

“I’m heading there right now.” He tried to pass me. I clutched his shoulder.

“Not so fast.” When he turned, avoiding my gaze, I moved in for the kill. I invaded his personal space, nose to nose. At least the heels Mom had pushed me to wear today had a good use after all. “Where’s. The. Tiara?”

He swallowed hard. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He was lucky I didn’t kill him on the spot. “I’m talking about the family heirloom that belongs to your mother, was loaned to my sister, and which you swiped while I was giving my toast.”

Scott glanced around. Seeing we were alone, he said, “Why do you care? Emma got to wear it during the ceremony and in the photos, like she wanted. Then she took it off, so clearly, she’s done with it. Besides, it belongs to my mother.”

“And she’d never let Emma hear the end of it if the tiara was stolen while Emma was responsible for it.”

He shrugged. “Sorry, but the tiara should be mine.”

“How do you figure?’

“I’m the oldest child of our generation.”

“It’s supposed to go to oldest daughter.” I glanced down at his pants. “Has there been a change I’m unaware of?”

He huffed out a breath. “No. But isn’t that sexist? Just because I’m a guy I’m not allowed to inherit the tiara?”

I felt a headache coming on. “Who would you leave it to? You and Tristan don’t want kids.”

“So?”

“So…I don’t get it. You want it simply to have it?”

“Better than my mom being buried in it one day. And…maybe I want to wear it myself. Maybe Tristan and I want to renew our vows in a few months on our tenth anniversary and I want to wear it. Did you ever think of that?”

My mouth hung open. “Actually…no. That hadn’t occurred to me for a second.” Scott had never struck me as particularly femme. “Well…that’s nice. That’s really nice, Scott, and I’m glad you shared it with me. But wouldn’t your mom notice when you walked down the aisle with the missing tiara on your head?”

“It’s going to be a very small event. No moms allowed. Nothing like this extravaganza.”

“That’s what Emma wanted.” Well, maybe I wanted the no-Mom part.

“At least she got to wear the tiara.”

I sighed. For all my anger over sexism in today’s ceremony, I’d never realized how sexist our family’s tiara tradition was. “Look, I’m sorry about all this. You have a really good point about the sexism. But you’re still going to have to give the tiara back.”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “No.”

I widened my eyes. “You can steal it from your mother’s house some other time. I’ll even help you if you want.”

“No.”

Growling, I poked his chest. “We’re going to your room right now and you’re going to give me the tiara or I am going to tell my mother what you did.”

He visibly gulped.

“And then I’m going to tell your mother.”

He jumped back and punched the elevator button repeatedly. “Okay, okay. You don’t have to play dirty.”

As the elevator arrived, he said, “Will you really help me steal the tiara?”

“On one condition.”

“What?”

“You have to participate in limbo later tonight.”

“Limbo? Really?”

I raised my right eyebrow at him. I was getting pretty good at that.

“Ugh. Fine. You win. Limbo.”

#

When I got back to the ballroom, the music and dancing had resumed. Emma wasn’t at her table, so I snuck over and slid the tiara back under the flower arrangement.

Across the room, Natalie sat alone at our table. I hurried over.

“I saved you a slice of cake.”

If we hadn’t been in public, I would have picked it up with my fingers and swallowed it whole. As it was, I used a fork and ate reasonably sized bites. One after the other, with barely time to breathe in between. This ginger spice cake with vanilla frosting was so tasty it almost made up for missing out on the tenderloin. And the salad. And the appetizers. And lunch.

“Emma never noticed the tiara was missing,” Natalie said.

“Oh, good.” Emma was out on the dance floor, shaking her booty.

“Yep. Of course, she might have been distracted by a big dog running through the room about ten minutes ago.”

A piece of cake fell out of my mouth, down my cleavage. “Oh no!”

“Oh yeah.”

“Oh God. What happened?”

“I was sitting here, eating my cake, keeping my eye on Emma as she ate her cake, so I didn’t notice the dog until I heard the commotion.”

“Commotion?”

“Lots of people reacted to that dog as he trotted to the dance floor. Gasping and pointing, like they’ve never seen a big wet dog before at a fancy affair thrown by Stella Weiss.”

Yep, I was definitely getting a headache.

“Did she see the dog?”

“Oh yeah.”

“So what happened?”

“Your cousins Chloe and Olivia started chasing the dog. You know what happens when you chase a dog, don’t you?”

“It thinks it’s a game and runs faster.”

“There you go. It’s like you were here. It ran around the tables, under the tables, shoving its nose in places it shouldn’t have. Then…” Natalie laughed. “Then it ran onto the dance floor. Your mom threw down her napkin and marched red-faced over to it. Her eyes were narrowed. Her brow was furrowed.”

“Her right eyebrow was raised to the ceiling,” we both said at once.

“And?” I said.

“And she scared the poor thing so bad, it took a dump, right there on the floor. See that white napkin? It’s covering the spot.”

I felt faint. “Oh God. Oh God, poor Emma.”

“That’s what I thought too, until she started to laugh. And when she laughed, everyone else did too. Everyone but your mom, of course.”

“Of course. Emma laughed?”

“She sure did.”

“And my mom?”

“Last I saw, she was demanding one of the servers find the manager of the hotel, while your twin cousins cleaned up the poop, begging me to tell you they tried their best. You want to tell me what that’s all about?”

“It’s a long story.”

“I have all night. Don’t forget to include the part about how you got all wet, with your makeup smeared and sandy paw prints on your stomach.”

I looked down. There they were.

“Yep.” Natalie broke into a grin. “This may be the best wedding I’ve ever been to.”

Emma approached us, her mouth open wide. “Robin, what happened?”

I shrugged. “I went outside for some fresh air, and it started pouring before I could get back in.”

She glanced at my stomach. “That’s all?”

Stupid dog. “That’s all.” No need to tell her how hard I’d tried to make this evening a good one for her. “You having fun?”

A blissful smile blossomed on her face. “I am.”

“You should put your tiara back on. Enjoy it while you can.” Then I could stop worrying about it.

“No. It pinched.” Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” started playing. “Oh, I love this song. You guys should come dance,” she said as she scampered back to Braden.

My cake was all gone, except that piece in my bra, which I guess I was saving for later. “You want to?” I asked Natalie.

“Let’s do it.” Her mouth fell open. “Robin…”

“What?”

She turned to me, her face confused. “I hate to tell you this, but…your dad just stole Emma’s tiara.”

#

As I watched Dad scurry toward the back of the ballroom with a crescent moon-shaped bulge under his tuxedo jacket, I knew Natalie was right. If Dad had picked up the tiara to look at it or move it to a safer spot—which it clearly needed—he wouldn’t have hidden it.

“I can’t even.” Words failed me. The goody bags Emma and Braden had made for everyone had Tylenol in them. I needed every last pill. “I have to talk to my dad.”

Natalie laughed in disbelief. “Yeah, you do.” She waved me off.

I hurried after him. I couldn’t begin to figure out what he was thinking. Did he hope to sell the tiara to help pay for the wedding? That would be completely out of character for him. I’d never known him to do anything dishonest.

I was so focused on Dad that I didn’t notice I was on a collision course with some guy until I smacked into him and his glass of beer splashed my face and dress. I loved beer, but not like this.

“I’m so sorry.” He handed me his cocktail napkin.

I tried to blot my face and neck with the small triple-ply napkin engraved with “Emma and Braden” in gold script. As with so much this weekend, it was clearly designed for show. Not up to the task at all. “Don’t worry about it. This development is right on trend for tonight.”

“What?”

“Nothing. I’m sorry about your drink.”

“No worries. I’ll get another. Open bar.”

Was that why Dad stole the tiara? To cover the bar tab?

When I reached the hallway, Dad was down at the far end, stepping into the restroom. The ladies’ restroom.

He’d passed a closer set of restrooms, which everyone at the reception had been using. Did he go down there for privacy? Why the ladies’ room? I couldn’t figure it out.

I sped there and pushed the door open warily. Dad was leaning against a dove-gray wall, his bald spot shining in the ceiling light, while my mom sat at a slate-gray vanity table adjusting the tiara on her head.

“What the heck?” I said.

Mom glared at Dad over her shoulder. “You let her follow you here.”

Throwing his hands in the air, Dad said, “Sorry I skipped the class on sneakiness at burglary school. I knew I shouldn’t have let you talk me into this.”

Dad kissed the top of my head, dabbed water off his face, then walked out. When the door clicked shut, I sauntered toward Mom. “Let me see if I’ve figured this out. You had Dad steal the tiara so you could keep it from Aunt Hazel?”

She gave me a duh look. “You think I’m going to let her be buried in it? My grandmother smuggled this tiara out of Germany. It might technically be Hazel’s now, but it belongs to the oldest daughter of each generation, those before us and those to come. It belongs to Emma!”

“Does she know about this?”

“Of course not. I’m going to leave it to her first daughter in my will. Won’t that be a nice surprise?” She turned back to the mirror and patted her hair. “This is the only time I’ve ever worn it. It’s pretty, don’t you think? Though not as shiny as I’d have thought.”

“Gorgeous.” I rolled my eyes at her priorities. “Mom, have you considered how Emma’s going to take it when she realizes the tiara is missing? It’s her responsibility. This will ruin the wedding for her. And you know Aunt Hazel will never let her hear the end of it.”

“You leave Hazel to me.”

“So you don’t care Emma’s going to feel terrible about this? For years to come.”

“Stop being so dramatic. She’ll get over it.”

I chuckled in disbelief. I’d jokingly (sort of) thought about killing several people tonight because they’d been greedy, selfish, or irresponsible. None of them had considered how their actions might upset Emma. That’s why Mom’s theft was on a whole other level. She knew this would hurt Emma, and she didn’t care.

Maybe I could kill her.

“You know, Mom, you’re right. Aunt Hazel’s incredibly selfish, wanting to take the tiara with her. But what you’re doing is worse, letting Emma twist in the wind. I won’t let you do it.”

Mom stood and turned toward me, fists on her hips. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me. Hand over the tiara.”

Her eyes narrowed, her brow furrowed, and she raised her right eyebrow. I admit my resolve wavered a bit.

“I have spent the better part of a year doing everything I could to make this a perfect night for my first-born child,” she said in a haughty tone. “And here you stand looking like something the cat dragged in, with your hair wet and scraggly, your makeup a mess, paw prints on your beautiful dress, sand stuck to your shoes, and on top of all that, you smell like a brewery mixed with wet dog. Yet you’re telling me I’m going to be responsible for ruining this wedding?”

Oh, that was a low blow. “Give me the tiara, Mom.”

“No. I’m saving it for the daughter Emma will have one day, and that’s final.”

With my anger rising, I stretched up as tall as I could, trying to look my most imposing. “Give me the tiara.”

“Don’t try to intimidate me.”

“Last chance. Hand it over.”

She laughed. “Or what?”

I narrowed my eyes, furrowed my brow, and raised my right eyebrow.

Surprise registered on Mom’s face. “That is not a good look on you.”

My anger boiled over. I thrust my arm forward and yanked the tiara right off her head! Got some of her dyed hair with it, including the roots.

Then I ran for it.

#

I returned to the ballroom having made a decision. “Emma,” I said, approaching her on the dance floor, holding out the tiara. “Could I wear this for the rest of the night? I need something to keep my hair off my face.” And a way to ensure the tiara didn’t get nipped again.

“Sure.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the DJ said. “Come on out to the dance floor. It’s time to limbo!”

Emma punched her fist in the air. “Woo-hoo!”

Natalie and I got in line. I settled the tiara on my head, heard my name, and turned just in time for the photographer to take a photo of me in all my bedraggled glory—as if this night wouldn’t be burned in my brain already.

The music started and the game began. I checked to make sure Chloe, Olivia, Scott, and Jason were all in line. They were. That raised right eyebrow was powerful stuff.

After several rounds, my cousin Janelle and I were the only ones left. I kept waiting for her to slip and fall, like on any normal day, but she was proving to be surprisingly limber. How was she still single (wedding hookups aside)? Finally Janelle nudged the stick as she tried to shimmy under it.

“All right,” the DJ announced. “We have one contestant left. If you make it under this time, you win!”

After the night I’d had, it was insane how much I wanted to win.

“Come on, Robin,” Natalie yelled as I bent backward.

One little jump forward. Another little jump forward. Leaning back. Leaning back. I was going to make it. I—

Something slammed into my leg. My balance shifted, and down I went, flat on the floor. People started laughing as I wondered who’d pulled a Tonya Harding on me.

“We have a winner!” the DJ said. “A last-minute entry. I don’t know his name, but he’s blond.”

I sat up to see who the cheater was.

Of course.

The dog won the limbo contest.

#

The next morning, Natalie and I made our way down to the beach. I kept my eye out for that dog as we traipsed along the golden sand, but I didn’t see him. With the wedding over and a good night’s sleep—and a solid meal—in me, I felt kinder toward him. I hoped the hotel had found his family.

It was a beautiful warm day for September. Nice enough to enjoy the sun, even though the clear blue water would be too cold for swimming.

A lot of people from the wedding were here, including the twins, who had no hangover, thank goodness; Rabbi Gelman, who was getting some needed color; and Adam and his wife, who remained oblivious to his cheating ways. I felt bad about that, but I couldn’t solve every problem, at least not at this wedding.

Eventually we grabbed some canvas beach chairs and sat in a quiet spot. Natalie read while I scrunched my toes in the sand and stared out at Lake Michigan. You’d never know it wasn’t an ocean. The state of Michigan was out there somewhere on the other side—more than a hundred miles away. Staring at the vastness of the lake let me shake off the last of my stress from the prior night.

After about an hour a shadow fell over me.

“This spot taken?” My dad wedged a chair into the sand beside me and settled into it. “A little birdie told me about everything you went through last night.”

“Cheep cheep cheep,” Natalie said.

I rolled my eyes. She and Dad are early risers and had eaten breakfast together this morning.

“You’re a good sister,” Dad said. “Emma’s lucky to have you. Don’t worry about your mother. She’ll get past this. You were right to stand up to her last night. I should’ve done it myself. She’s just had such a fiery relationship with Hazel all her life, with Hazel getting what your mom calls ‘special treatment’ simply because she’s older, including control of the tiara. She’d worked herself into a frenzy thinking it’d be buried one day. I’d wanted to calm her down. Unlike you, I hadn’t focused on the consequences.”

“If I can add my two cents, from an outsider’s perspective?” Natalie asked, and I nodded. “I’m sorry to say this, but you and your mom are a lot alike.”

“Excuse me?” As my right eyebrow rose, I recalled Mom saying that exact thing last night in the same outraged tone. I cringed.

Natalie grasped my hand. “You’re both fierce. Determined to do what you believe is right. You want to protect Emma. Your mom thinks Emma’s too shy for her own good. She doesn’t want her to miss out on things she believes Emma really wants deep down, so she pushes to get her way. Maybe Stella’s not unfeeling. Maybe she simply sees things differently.”

I felt the color draining from my face as the truth of Natalie’s words struck me. I was just like Mom.

“Tylenol,” I croaked. “I need more Tylenol.”

Dad laughed. “If I haven’t said it before, Natalie, you are a welcome addition to our family. I’m looking forward to your wedding.”

I whimpered. “No more weddings.”

Natalie squeezed my hand. “Maybe we’ll elope.”

“This is why I love you.”

My phone buzzed. I read the text.

“Braden’s heading to the restaurant for brunch. You and Nat should join us. But meet me in my room first alone? I’d like a few minutes of sister time before we leave on our honeymoon.”

#

Emma and I were sitting on the striped sofa in her suite. To the soundtrack of waves whooshing toward the beach outside, I’d just told her everything that happened last night. She’d known something was up.

“You did all that for me? To save the tiara?”

“Yep.”

She reached into a canvas bag on the carpet. “This tiara?”

“I thought you returned it to Aunt Hazel. Didn’t she and Uncle George already go home?”

Emma smirked. “She went home with tiara.”

I gawped at her, then at the tiara. It was much shinier now than it had been last night—except during the ceremony, when its gems had really glittered.

“I love everything you did for me,” Emma said. “But I wouldn’t have minded if that tiara had gone missing because this one—the real one—was tucked safely away in the locked yichud room.”

I needed a carton of Tylenol. “Explain.”

“When I wrote my vows, one of them was that I would put my new family ahead of everyone else. Mom. Aunt Hazel. It’s what the circling was about during the ceremony. I want the daughter I’ll have one day to wear this tiara. It’s her birthright. So I had a duplicate created, and after I made my vows to Braden in the yichud room, I hid this tiara and put the fake one on.”

That’s why you weren’t worried it might get stolen when you took it off during the party.”

“It really did pinch.” She grinned. “You know the best part of all? Turns out Aunt Hazel can’t tell when everything is fake.”

Wow. “No offense, but when I think of what I went through last night for you, I’m a little angry you kept me in the dark.”

Emma laughed. “No offense to you, but while I may be a little timid—or at least the old me was—you can be a bit judgmental. I didn’t know how you’d feel about this. I didn’t know if I could trust you.”

“You didn’t know if you could trust me?” I narrowed my eyes, furrowed my brow, and raised my right eyebrow.

“Oh, Robin. That is not a good look on you.”

Lord help me. I may kill her.