"I think I'm gonna be sick."
"You're not gonna be sick, you div."
"I dunno, Ray, I've got butterflies –"
"Butterflies? Blokes don't get butterflies, you poofter."
"What if she don't turn up, though?"
"Of course she'll bleedin' turn up. She said she'd marry you, didn't she?" Chris didn't look convinced. Ray rolled his eyes and grimaced at the words coming out of his own mouth. "Will you get a grip? She bloody...y'know...loves you, god knows why." He coughed uncomfortably and glared at Chris in frustration. "Look, are you gonna grow a pair, or am I gonna have to stand here talking like a fairy all day?"
"I dunno," Chris muttered glumly, adjusting his cufflinks and frowning. "What if she's changed her mind?" He looked up at Ray helplessly. "I always thought she would. Never understood why she'd want to marry me. Couldn't believe it when she said yes. I always thought she'd see sense and up and leave. Realise how much better she could do."
"For Christ's sake, Chris, it's your bloody wedding day," said Ray with distinct distaste. "You're supposed to be getting excited about baby names and matching lampshades, not looking like you're about to walk to your death."
"Sorry." Chris sighed. "I'm just really nervous, you know? There's so much that could go wrong, and I don't want anything to spoil it...not for me, but I know Shaz wants it to be perfect..."
"Look, Chris." Ray leaned against the table and folded his arms. "Nothing's gonna go wrong. I've got everything under control. No need to look so confident in my abilities," he added pointedly. Chris really did look quite nervous. Every trace of colour had drained from his face, and his eyes had taken on a slightly wild quality. "Hey, you're not gonna faint on me or anything, are you?" asked Ray nervously.
"Can't promise anything," said Chris weakly. Ray tried valiantly to hide his frustration. He'd watched Chris disarm murderers, deal with hostage situations, look down the barrel of a gun himself, but he'd never seen him look as petrified as he did right now. Ray might not know a lot about weddings, but he did know that people about to get married were supposed to look fairly cheerful.
"Right, that's bloody enough." He glared at Chris. "You're shaking like a leaf, you twonk. You've got to go out there –" He jabbed his thumb at the door, "stand in front of a hundred people, and look like you're in love. Look a bit happier, will you?"
"I am happy," said Chris indignantly. "I've been waiting for this day for months, haven't I? It's just nerves."
"Right. And you know I've got everything sorted, and nothing's gonna go wrong?"
"Yeah..." Chris looked marginally happier. "I know you have. Thanks, Ray."
"It's just...it's a scary thought, y'know? As soon as that ring's on my finger, that's it. One person, for the rest of my life. And then what? Kids? A house in the country? It's a lot to think about." He looked down at his hands. "I mean, it's a hell of a lot more than just a ring, isn't it?"
"Suppose so." Ray shrugged. A ring was just a ring to him, but then he'd never been married. Never wanted to, not really. Well. Not so much never wanted to, as never found the right person. It didn't bother him. He probably wasn't suited to married life. Especially not with someone like Shaz, who would almost certainly have Chris doing the ironing within a fortnight. Ray felt distractedly in his pocket for the small box containing the rings which Chris had entrusted to him a couple of days ago. His hand froze. Where was it? He scrabbled through his other pockets. Nothing. Shit. Chris was gazing down at the floor, completely oblivious. Desperately, Ray patted down his suit, his stomach plummeting at what felt like a hundred miles an hour.
"Erm, Chris..." His voice came out slightly strangled, and he cleared his throat. Chris looked up at him expectantly. "I've forgotten, erm...that is, I haven't got..." He broke off. He couldn't do this to him, not now. Not when he'd just managed to cheer him up. "Listen mate, I'm gonna have to go back to the station and pick something up. You'll be all right, won't you?"
Chris had gone grey again. "What d'you have to pick up? You're not gonna be long, are you?"
"Nah, it's just my, erm..." Ray scrambled for an excuse. "My, erm...medication." As his own words filtered through to his brain, he mentally kicked himself. What? What kind of feeble excuse for a –
"What medication?" Chris frowned. "I didn't know you were on medication."
"Erm, yeah..." Ray cast around for inspiration, and his gaze fell upon a rather wilted bunch of daffodils on the windowsill. "Hayfever. It's, erm, really bad at this time of year..."
"Shaz gets hayfever." Chris's expression cleared. "I hope hers is all right today, she feels awful with it sometimes." He glanced at his watch, and some of the anxiety returned to his face. "Hurry up, then, if you're going back to the station. We're starting in half an hour..."
Sincerely hoping that Chris wouldn't pass out, do a runner or slit his own wrists while he was gone, Ray hurried out of the church, grabbed a cab and directed the driver to take him back to the station. He couldn't believe that he'd forgotten the rings. Forgotten. He wouldn't let himself think lost. They couldn't be lost. He must have put them down somewhere. They were probably sitting on his desk.
They weren't. Nor were they on Chris's desk, or the Guv's, or Shaz's. They weren't among the discarded files in the corner of the room, or nestled between the coffee cups in the kitchen, or in the pocket of his jacket hanging on the back of his chair.
It was in a state of near panic that Ray flew into Luigi's several minutes later, disturbing a group of people enjoying a late lunch and earning the long-suffering sigh of the man himself.
"Luigi –" Ray gasped, holding onto his side and grimacing in pain at the stitch, "the rings – the wedding rings – for Chris and Shaz, have you got anything I can use? Borrow, even? I've gone and lost the bloody things. Anything will do – Luigi, I really need –"
Luigi regarded him with surprise for a moment. Then, a twinkle in his eye, he reached behind the counter and drew something out of a narrow drawer. "Perhaps these would do nicely?" Ray gaped. In the palm of Luigi's hand was a small box covered in blue velvet.
"Wha –" He seized the box and opened it, inspecting the contents. It was the missing rings. The very ones. A wave of relief crashed over him. Thank God.
"I found them this morning." Luigi beamed. "You must not be so careless, Signor Carling." He peered over Ray's shoulder. "They are very beautiful, no?"
"No...I mean, yes." Relieved beyond measure, Ray let out a shaky breath. "Luigi, I owe you one. I don't know what I'd have done..."
"I think you owe me several, Signor Carling," said Luigi wryly. "I am truly sorry that I cannot attend the wedding – my wife has chosen a very inconvenient time to fall ill." He sighed and shrugged elaborately. "Never mind. You will give a message to Signor Skelton from me, no? Tell him he is a very lucky man. And as for Signorina Granger..." Luigi winked. "Say to her good luck. She will have her work cut out with this Englishman, I think."
Ray snorted. "She's got Chris wrapped round her little finger, has Shaz. Don't think she'll have a problem. Him on the other hand..." He tucked the rings safely into his breast pocket. "Right. I'm off, Luigi, I've got a wedding to get to. What time is – oh bollocks," he exclaimed, earning the scandalised stares of some of Luigi's more refined customers. Finding the rings had taken a lot longer than he'd expected. Yelling a thank you to Luigi over his shoulder, Ray dived back between the tables, sent a plateful of spaghetti Bolognese skidding onto someone's lap, and sped out of the restaurant.
Luigi sighed heavily. "The pleasure is all mine, Signor Carling. As ever."
Alex winced as the Quattro scraped the edge of the kerb and came to a crunching halt outside the church. They were running a bit late, and the hurry had done nothing for Gene's driving skills. She was almost regretting accepting his offer of a lift, but at least they'd arrived in one piece.
Alex had been to a wedding three weeks before she'd arrived in the eighties, and she'd found herself longing for the outfit she'd worn for that. It would have been just right for a summer wedding. But at the same time, she realised, it would have looked totally out of place more than twenty years before its time. So she'd given herself the afternoon off a few days ago to trawl the shops, and she thought she'd managed it all right.
Gene, surprisingly, had dug out a rather smart grey suit from somewhere, and was looking quite reasonable, Alex thought. Unfortunately, his expression didn't match his appearance. He looked distinctly unimpressed, his glower exacerbated by his stance, hands shoved moodily into his pockets as he glared in distaste at the church.
"Come on, behave." Alex nudged him. "You only have to be angelic for one day. It shouldn't be too difficult, even for you."
"That's what you think," he grumbled. "I don't do weddings. All that clapping and smiling and ahhing...and don't get me started on the crying. There won't be a dry eye in that place by the end of it, and for what? I'll be damned if I'll go teary-eyed over the wedded bliss of Christopher Skelton. Closest I ever came to crying at a wedding was my own and you'd understand that if you'd ever met my wife."
Alex rolled her eyes and stepped out of the car, waiting for him to join her on the pavement. Accepting an order of service from the long-suffering usher on the door, they filed into the church along with a few other late arrivals, and found a pew about halfway down the aisle. Alex squinted to the front of the church, trying to pick out Chris and Ray among all the people milling about near the altar. She didn't recognise any of them, but then she'd never met any of Chris and Shaz's friends or family, so she hadn't expected to know many people.
As she watched, there was a tide of movement away from the front of the church as a vicar appeared to chivvy everyone to their seats. Alex uncrossed her legs and sat up straight. She had a clearer view now. What had Chris done to his hair? He was facing away from her, towards the altar, so she couldn't see his face, but his hair made him almost unrecognisable. And where, for that matter, was Ray? Alex scanned the church but she couldn't see him anywhere. She frowned, and turned to say something to Gene, but then the orchestra struck up the wedding march and the church doors opened, rays of bright sunlight streaming in from outside.
Busy admiring the effects of the light on the beautiful stained glass windows, Alex was completely oblivious to anything untoward until Gene yanked her arm and hissed something in her ear. "That's not Shaz!"
She turned to him in alarm. "What?"
"You could fit three of Shaz into that monstrosity of a dress, or had you not noticed? We're at the wrong bloody wedding." he whispered urgently. "Move it, Bolls."
"What do you mean, we're at the wrong –" Alex peered over the people in front of her towards the front of the church. The groom had turned away from the altar towards the door. With his bushy moustache and even bushier eyebrows, he was definitely not Chris. Making her way down the aisle, the large, peroxide blonde middle-aged bride could not have looked less like Shaz.
Muttering hasty apologies to the people on either side of them, Alex and Gene scrambled out of their pew and dived back up the aisle, just as the bride swept down it. She shot them a startled and rather affronted look as they pushed past her, and Alex found herself caught between a fervent wish that the floor would swallow her up and a strong desire to laugh hysterically. Behind the bride, a clutch of small girls tripped down the aisle, wearing matching pale gold dresses and clasping small bunches of flowers. As one, they looked up in sheer fright as Gene bore down on them, scattering them left, right and centre.
"Sorry – sorry – excuse us, ladies – oh bugger – Bolly, get a move on."
"Right behind you." Alex gave the girls an apologetic smile, handed back a few discarded flowers and hared up the aisle after Gene.
Once outside the church, Alex couldn't help laughing. The situation was so utterly, utterly ridiculous. Even the corner of Gene's mouth had twitched up in amusement. Alex glanced at the order of service she held crumpled in her hand. She hadn't even looked at it on her way into the church. Congratulations, Lindsay and Colin. Gene peered over her shoulder.
"Nice picture," he commented, smirking.
Alex shot him a reproving look. "Not everyone looks as fetching in a suit as you do, Gene," she said with more than a touch of irony.
"I don't need you to tell me that," he huffed. "Now, are we going to get a move on, or what? Thanks to your bloody directions, we're going to be later than the bleedin' bride."
"My directions?" Alex bridled. "You're the one who said it was this church. I just read the map and directed us to where you said." She glanced at her watch. "Did you bring the invitation? I think it's time to find out how fast your beloved Quattro can really go."
Gene fished in his breast pocket, pulled out a dog-eared, slightly bent piece of embossed card and inspected it. "Brookside Church...bloody hell, that's nowhere near here. It's in completely the opposite direction to the station. Weddings..." he muttered, yanking open the car door with unnecessary force. "More trouble than they're worth, if you ask me. Hop in then Bolls, and hang onto your knickers, it's going to be a bumpy ride."
Alex slid into the passenger seat and fastened her seatbelt firmly, ignoring the glare which Gene shot her. "When is it ever not?"
Gene hadn't been lying. Whatever he'd said about weddings, he was obviously determined not to miss this one. The Quattro tore around corners on squealing tyres, roared through red lights and mounted the kerb countless times, while Alex, clutching her handbag with white knuckles, closed her eyes and prayed for a quick end to her misery. Suddenly, the car screeched to a halt without warning and she was thrown violently forwards, her seatbelt cutting painfully into her neck.
"Raymondo!" shouted Gene through the open window. "You do know it's customary for the best man to be present at the bloody wedding, do you?"
Massaging her neck, Alex glanced out of the window. They were parked, or rather skewed across the road, outside Luigi's. A frantic looking Ray was standing on the kerb, his once immaculate suit looking distinctly worse for the wear.
"Guv! Thank god you're here, bastard cabbie scarpered –"
"Don't stand there nattering, you twonk, get in the sodding car!" roared Gene, and Ray yanked open the door and dived into the back seat.
"Sorry Guv, Ma'am," he panted. "Forgot the rings. I was at the church an' all, and I just couldn't find them...bloody nightmare. Luigi found them for me. Don't know what I'd have done..." Tucking them safely into his pocket, he exhaled with relief. "Where were you two then, anyway? Bloody lucky you came by, but shouldn't you be at the church?"
"We were at the church," said Gene through gritted teeth. "Just the wrong one. And don't bloody laugh. That's an order."
"Wasn't going to." Ray looked amazed. "Not going well so far, is it? Better not mention this to Chris, he's wetting himself as it is. Might push him over the edge."
"Just what we need," Alex sighed. "I only hope Shaz is running late – Gene, watch out for that child!"
"Shit." Gene spun the wheel and the car swerved violently. "What's the stupid kid doing in the middle of the road, for Christ's sake?"
"Gene, she wasn't in the middle of the road. You're driving on the bloody pavement half the time! Will you just slow down? It's not going to help matters if we wind up in hospital, is it?" Alex was clutching the sides of her seat for dear life. "It's not the end of the world if we're a few minutes late. At least stay on the road!"
"Too late." Gene stamped his foot on the brake and the Quattro lurched to a sudden standstill. "We're here. Everybody out."
If it was possible to explode with happiness, Shaz thought she might be about to. Everything had been perfect. They hadn't been able to afford the string quartet she'd wanted to walk up the aisle to, but Chris's mate on the electric violin had been just right, somehow. And even though she'd been a bit giggly during her vows, and Chris had dropped the ring while he was putting it on her finger, her wedding day had been everything she'd ever wanted it to be, and more.
Outside the church, the sun was shining. By the time that Shaz had done the rounds of her parents and brothers, and listened patiently to the chatter of Chris's little nieces and nephews, the majority of the guests had dispersed. Over by the low wall, DI Drake and the Guv had their heads bent over what appeared to be their order of service. Holding a copy in each hand and looking between them, DI Drake was laughing, and even the Guv had cracked a smile. Shaz was slightly mystified. She'd designed the front cover herself, and she knew it was a picture of her and Chris in Luigi's. It would have been nice to have had a photograph professionally done, but there hadn't really been enough money, and in the end the one they'd chosen was more personal. Why they should be finding it so funny, she had no idea.
"Shaz!" DI Drake looked up and quickly pushed one of the booklets into her bag, still fighting back the laughter. "Congratulations!"
"Thanks, Ma'am." Shaz blushed as DI Drake kissed her slightly awkwardly on the cheek. "I'm so glad you could come – and you, Guv – I thought you weren't going to make it!"
"Oh, well, y'know..." The Guv shifted uncomfortably. "Wouldn't have missed it. I love a good wedding, me. Just the ticket."
"It was lovely, Shaz." DI Drake smiled. "I'm sorry we cut it so fine. The traffic was terrible. I'm just glad DCI Hunt knew exactly where we were going, or we'd have had real problems."
Shaz wondered why they were avoiding each other's eye, and why DI Drake still hadn't managed to quite wipe the amusement from her face. Baffled, she glanced over her shoulder to see Ray and Chris wandering over to join them, Chris blushing furiously as Ray chuckled. No doubt Ray had a well-rehearsed stock of dirty wedding-related jokes on hand, thought Shaz with slight trepidation. She knew he was going to be giving a speech that evening, and she hadn't wanted to interfere with what he might say, but she dearly hoped that what Chris was receiving at this moment wasn't a preview of what was to come.
"Hey, Shaz," said Ray as he and Chris joined them, "Luigi says good luck with this div. And he's sorry he couldn't make it today."
"Luigi?" said Shaz in surprise. "When did you see Luigi?" Unfortunately, at that moment Ray succumbed to an immense sneezing fit, and was rendered quite unable to answer her question. When he resurfaced, Shaz kissed him on the cheek, making him blush even more than he already was. "Thank you, Ray." She smiled. "For organising everything. It was perfect. I thought something was bound to happen..."
"Oh, well..." Ray shifted uncomfortably. "Piece of cake, really. Wasn't much to do."
"Still. I couldn't stop thinking about all those best man clichés...y'know, messing up the speech, forgetting to book the church, losing the rings..."
Ray coughed and adjusted his tie, avoiding Shaz's eye. "What do you think I am, an idiot?" he said gruffly. The Guv snorted, and even DI Drake choked a little. Ray fixed them with a stony glare. Chris gazed at the three of them, puzzled.
"What's got into you three?"
His bemusement was too much. Shaz and Chris looked on in astonishment as Ray, DI Drake and even the Guv dissolved into uncontrollable laughter.