“Clearly, she hates us,” Carly DeCusati announced from behind her dressing room curtain. “She must.”
“Oh, come on, it can’t be that bad,” Mackenzie Harris protested.
Carly was the overly dramatic one in their group of friends, so Mac knew to ignore the paranoia in her friend’s voice. She entered the curtained dressing room of the upmarket Boston bridal store and unzipped the cover on the bridesmaid dress that the shop assistant indicated had been chosen for her.
Mac pulled the garment out of the bag and flinched. She dropped the scratchy fabric and put her hand to her throat as if to ward off the ugly. There was no arguing it, the dress was hideous.
“Oh, ish, what color is this?” Jillian Braedon, another bridesmaid, asked from her dressing room.
“Cat sick?” Carly offered. It was clear from her tone she wasn’t kidding.
“Maybe it’s the lighting in here,” Mac said. “Nothing ever looks good under fluorescent lighting.”
“Yeah, no,” Carly said. “The only place this dress would look good is in a black out.”
Jillian snorted and Mac sighed. As maid of honor, she knew it was on her to gently but firmly break it to the bride that they collectively hated the dress, which with only four weeks to go until the wedding was not going to go over well at all.
“Let’s just try them on to be sure,” she said.
“Really? Do we have to?” Carly protested. “I bet it gives me hives.”
“I have a lotion for that,” Jillian offered. As an aromatherapy herbalist she was ever prepared for any situation, sort of like a girl scout minus the cookies.
“Listen,” Mac said. “The sooner we try them on the sooner we can take them off.”
The other two grumbled but she was reassured by the rustle of clothing that they were undressing to suit up as requested just like she was. Mac took the dress off the hanger and held it up in front of her. In a shade of brown green that looked like a bowl of guacamole gone wrong, the dress had padded shoulders and a puffy skirt the likes of which Mac had only seen at unfortunate eighties themed parties.
“Is it just me or does anyone else hear Madonna’s Crazy For You in their head?” Carly asked.
“Me, I do!” Jillian agreed. “I also have a sudden urge to rat up my hair in a lopsided ponytail and wear a lot of jelly bracelets.”
Mac lowered the zipper on the side of the dress and pulled it over her head. She shoved her arms through the holes and wiggled until the dress fell around her hips, landing somewhere at mid-calf. It took some maneuvering but she managed to pull up the zipper. She had to suck in her breath to make the snug middle actually fit, but she managed it. Barely.
She closed her eyes and smoothed the skirt, hoping that when she opened them the dress would not be the nightmare she feared it was. She opened just one eye for a quick glance. Ew! She shut her eyes again. Surely, it couldn’t be that bad.
Mac drew a deep breath and forced herself to face her reflection, trying to build up the nerve to look with both of her peepers. There had to be some mistake.
Emma Tolliver, the bride, had been her best friend since the first grade. Emma was a petite, pretty blonde with exquisite taste, surely, Mac was just missing something here, like maybe Emma was colorblind or had sustained a nasty head injury that Mac didn’t know about. Seriously, there had to be some explanation for this fashion travesty.
She opened her eyes and pressed her lips together to keep from crying out. There was no getting around it. The dress was butt ugly. Carly was right, Emma must hate them.
Mac noticed the others were silent and wondered if they’d been rendered catatonic by the horror show of a dress.
“Hey, are you two all right?” she asked.
“I refuse to come out,” Carly said.
“That sounds like a personal issue,” Mac countered. “Jilly, how about you?”
“No, I don’t think I can,” Jillian said. “What if someone got a picture of this? It could go viral on the Internet. Oh, my god, we could be a bridesmaids-from-hell meme that would live on and on forever and ever.”
“I can’t get the zipper down,” Carly said. There was the sound of some grunting and thrashing. “I swear to God if I can’t get it off, I will burn this dress while wearing it.”
“Stop the crazy talk, both of you. You can’t take it off, Carly, you know Emma is going to want to see us in them,” Mac said. “She’ll be here any second.”
“I love you all like sisters, really, I do,” Carly said. “But I will eat a gun before I let anyone see me in this thing.”
Mac poked her head, just her head, out of the curtain. She scanned the room. “There’s no one here but us. I think we’ll all feel better if we see each other. I don’t want the image of me to be the only thing burned on my retinas for eternity.”
The other two were quiet, until Mac said, “Well?”
“Fine, but I’m doing it under protest,” Jillian said.
“Yeah, all right, but only because I need help with the zipper,” Carly agreed. “On the count of three. One. Two. Three.”
Mac shoved her curtain aside at the same time the other two did. They all stepped out and looked at one another. Mac felt her eyebrows rise up to her hairline. She knew how bad the dress looked on her, but the fact that the dress did nothing for Carly’s short, curvy Italian va-va-voom figure, nor did it jive with Jillian’s dark complexion and tall, slender wear-anything-and-look-amazing physique, told Mac that the only place the dress belonged was in the garbage.
The expressions on Carly’s and Jillian’s faces confirmed what Mac already knew; she looked as bad as they did. She glanced at the mirror. She was somewhere in the middle of the other two, as in average height and average build with shoulder length brown hair that she hit with expensive copper highlights on a somewhat regular basis.
Really, it was a halfhearted attempt to be fashionable, given that she mostly wore her hair in a ponytail because although she paid a premium for the color, she was weak on the whole maintenance thing. She glanced back at her friends.
They looked like survivors from a train wreck. It could have been the horrified expressions on their faces or maybe it was the poufy shroud of a dress making them look sickly and anemic. A second glance at the mirror and Mac confirmed that she looked as if she’d been belched out of the wreckage with her friends. Or worse.
“We look like floaters in a rest stop toilet,” Mac said. Then a laugh burbled up out of her before she had the presence of mind to stop it.
“What are you giggling at? This is a crisis!” Carly cried. “Unless you think we could actually flush these dresses down the toilet?”
The three of them glanced around the room but there wasn’t a commode in sight.
“I hate to even suggest this, but do you think Emma is doing that bride thing, you know, where the bride picks the ugliest dress possible for her bridesmaids so that she looks even better on her special day?” Jillian asked.
“No!” Mac shook her head. “Emma isn’t like that.”
“I don’t know,” Carly said. “She’s the first one of us to make it legal. Maybe she’s going a little bridal banana balls on us.”
Jillian gave Carly a bug-eyed look and Carly bit her lip and stared at Mac, looking regretful as she apologized, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up…”
“No,” Mac said and held up her hand to stop Carly’s gush of apologies. “The past is the past. No worries. Let’s just focus on the crisis at hand.”
“How could she do this to us?” Jillian asked. “We’re her Maine crew and have been for the past twenty years.”
“Maine crew, ha, like main crew!” Carly snorted. “I see what you did there.”
“Yes, very clever,” Mac said. “Now, focus.”
She gestured at the triple mirror in front of them. And they all turned to take in their reflection with varying levels of alarm.
“You know when you find the perfect dress, the sort that makes you feel like a sexual goddess who wants to touch herself?” Carly asked. “Yeah, this dress is not that dress. This dress makes me want a vaccination and a full body condom.”
“We’d be sexier in full body condoms,” Mac said.
“A shot of tequila or four is the only thing that could make this dress palatable,” Jillian said. “Wait here. I might have some in my purse.”
Jillian ducked back into her dressing room, and Carly and Mac exchanged a bewildered look. When Jillian returned she was clutching several tiny bottles of Jose Cuervo. She met their stares and shrugged.
“What? This is our prenuptials girls’ weekend. I packed for any unforeseen emergencies,” she said. “Believe me; telling Emma we hate the dress is an emergency. I suppose I could whip up a soothing batch of chamomile tea if you’d rather.”
Mac snatched one of the tiny bottles out of her friend’s hand. She had just put it to her lips when the main door to the dressing room opened and Emma walked in.
“Oh, you found the dresses,” she said and clapped her hands together. “Yay!”
“Yay?” Carly asked. She looked like she was going to take a swing at Emma. It had been known to happen, although usually only in bars late at night toward people who had seriously pissed her off. Mac stepped between the two women.
She thrust the small tequila bottle at Emma and said, “Cheers!”
Maybe if they got her drunk it would be easier to tell her the dresses were a no go. Emma smiled and took the bottle, although she didn’t drink.
“Celebrating?” she asked.
“Er, more like medicating,” Mac said.
She glanced at Emma, her oldest friend. They had been through it all together; braces, first dates, thin envelopes from their dream colleges, even the sudden death of Emma’s mother when they were teens. There was nothing Mac wouldn’t do for her dearest friend except wear this dress. There was no way to finesse this, none at all.
“By any chance, and I ask this purely from an information gathering place and not as an accusation, are you mad at us?” Mac asked.
Carly and Jillian closed ranks around Mac and they all stared at Emma with varying looks of concern and worry. Emma tipped her head to the side and gave them a hurt and confused look. Her eyes looked sad and she pressed her lips together. Mac thought she was trying not to cry, but Emma shocked her by busting out a belly laugh as if she just couldn’t hold it in any longer.
“Gotcha!” she cried. She winked and pointed at them with both index fingers.
Mac, Carly, and Jillian exchanged confused glances and then Jillian, the quickest on the uptake asked, “You punked us?”
Emma nodded and then bent over as she laughed with abandon. “You should have seen your faces! That was the best.”
“I hate you,” Carly said with more respect than heat. Then she started laughing. Mac and Jillian joined in, although Mac felt it was more from relief than actual amusement.
“Ow, can’t breathe, dress too tight!” Carly gasped. Jillian hurriedly unzipped her and Carly sucked in a few deep breaths before announcing, “Well, this was fun but I’m changing. Now!”
“Wait!” Emma said. “Look behind the garment bag in your dressing room, that’s your real dress.”
Jillian and Carly darted excitedly into their changing rooms, but Mac paused beside Emma and said, “Explain.”
“Simple. You know what a pain Carly is about clothes, I mean she is a fashion buyer so I get it, but still she never likes the first thing she tries on, ever, so I figured if you all thought the dress I picked was truly hideous than she would be thrilled with the dress I actually picked.” She gave Mac a devious smile. “Bet you a fiver I’m right.”
Mac raised her hands in a sign of surrender. “That’s a sucker’s bet. You didn’t actually have some poor sap sew these eyesores, did you?”
“Nah, these dresses were some rejects from last season that the shop hasn’t been able to unload.”
“Shocker,” Mac said.
“When I saw the sizes were close to yours, I asked my dressmaker Suzanne if I could borrow them.” Emma shrugged. “I figured it would be a hoot, and it was, it totally was.”
“I’ve got to give it to you that was genius.”
Emma grinned. Then she shooed Mac back into her dressing room. “Hurry up, go change, I want to see.”
Mac ducked back behind her curtain to change. Sure enough behind the black garment bag was another one. She unzipped it and her breath caught.
A simple Windsor blue chemise, in a delicate chiffon with a matching silk lining, peeked out of the bag at her. Relief almost made her knees buckle. She pulled it off the hanger and saw it had a vee neckline, with a thin blue ribbon tied in a small bow right below the bodice and a matching wide blue ribbon at the hem which landed just above her knees.
The dress was perfect and lovely and when Mac pulled it over her head, it felt like diving into a cool blue pool of water.
“Now this is what I’m talking about,” Carly said.
“Amen,” Jillian echoed.
“Count of three?” Carly asked.
“I’m ready,” Mac called.
“One. Two. Three.” As one they stepped out of their dressing rooms to find Emma beaming at them.
“Do you like them?” she asked. She looked nervous. “Really like them?”
Carly opened her arms and initiated a group hug. “Sweetie, they are perfection.”
As Mac was enfolded into the group, she couldn’t help but think how much she had missed this over the past few years, the closeness, the camaraderie, the pranks, and the love. These women were her oldest friends, her people, how could she have run away from them for so long?
“Four more skinny margaritas,” Carly ordered from the waitress who paused by their table. “And now, I must dance.”
Carly looped her arm through Jillian’s and dragged her to the dance floor. Mac watched them as they swiveled and gyrated to the DJ’s thumping beat. They were clearing a nice chunk of floor space for themselves but not in a good way.
“Dang, Carly looks like a chicken being electrocuted out there,” Emma said as she slid onto the stool beside Mac.
“And is completely unaware of it,” Mac agreed. She glanced at Emma who was tucking her cell phone back into her clutch. “How’s Brad?”
“He misses me desperately, natch,” she said. She tossed her blonde hair over her shoulder.
Mac smiled. Emma and Brad had met the old fashioned way, in a bar, when he had tackled her to keep a drunk who happened to be his best friend from throwing up on her. The drunk had thrown up on Brad instead. Ah, the romance.
“Listen, I’m sorry I haven’t been more available for wedding stuff,” Mac said. “I mean we’re just a few weeks out and you had to have the dresses made up off of our measurements, because I couldn’t get back here for fittings…”
“Carly couldn’t make it either,” Emma said.
“Yes, but I’m the maid of honor. I’m supposed to be at your beck and call, you know, helping with the cake and flowers and all that junk.”
“Okay, the fact that you just called it junk is exactly why being one thousand miles away in Chicago makes you the perfect maid of honor. No interference, no second guessing, really, you’re good,” Emma said. She picked up her glass took a healthy swig.
“Ugh, see? I can’t even feign enthusiasm. I’m the worst. If you want to replace me with Carly or Jillian, I will totally understand,” Mac said. She knew she was a little loose lipped from the drinks but she was also as serious as a heart attack.
Emma waved her off. “Shut up, you idiot. You’re my oldest friend. I could never replace you, besides you’re here now and you’re actually going to set foot in Bluff Point for the ceremony, so how can I complain?”
Mac felt her heart lurch and her palms get damp at the thought of going home. It had been years since she’d set foot in her hometown of Bluff Point, Maine, and only for Emma was she willing to go back.
She had met Emma Tolliver in first grade when they arrived wearing matching Little Mermaid backpacks and decided they were twins. They quickly bonded over a love of Polly Pocket dolls and a hatred of Sandy Peeler, the meanest girl in their class. By sixth grade their ranks had filled out to include Carly and Jillian.
Some of the best days of Mac’s life had been spent in that small coastal town, hanging out at the beach with her gal pals and dreaming about the future. But then the very worst day of her life had been spent there as well and she hadn’t returned since.
Emma put her hand on Mac’s arm. “Are you sure you’re okay with coming home?”
“Huh?” Mac shook her head, trying to clear away the margaritas and bad memories. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. I mean, it’s been seven years, surely, everyone is over the drama by now.”
“Of course, they are,” Emma said. “In fact, since Tilda Curtis left Doc Curtis for their babysitter Hannah Bishop, who was barely of age at the time, well, let’s just say the lesbian affair eclipsed you being left at the altar by Seth Connelly by a mile. They’re all anyone ever talks about now.”
Mac didn’t even cringe at the words left at the altar. So, progress, right? She would have patted herself on the back for such personal growth but she was afraid her last skinny margarita might cause her to fall off her stool in an indelicate heap.
“I’ll have to be sure to send Tilda and Hannah a thank you note,” she said.
Emma laughed. She threw her arm around Mac’s shoulders and hugged her hard. “That’s my girl. So, is Trevor definitely not going to make it to the wedding?” she asked.
Mac glanced at Emma. She knew her bestie was not enamored of her boyfriend of the past few years. The few times Emma and Brad had come to see Mac and Trevor in Chicago, the visits had been awkward at best and downright hostile at worst.
Mac and Trevor were neighbors who dated, split everything down the middle, and while they enjoyed a robust social life together, they also retreated to their separate domiciles afterwards. Being an accountant, the relationship suited Mac as it was easily quantifiable in a profit and loss sense. She profited by having a date when she wanted one and she lost the risk factor of having her world decimated by Trevor since she maintained a healthy boundary between them.
Emma did not approve. She felt that in a relationship, a person should be all in or why bother and she had no qualms about sharing her feelings on the subject, especially when they were all together. Trevor being unable to attend Emma and Brad’s big day was undoubtedly not going to help her develop any warm fuzzies for him.
“He is so sorry he can’t make it,” Mac lied. “He really tried to get the time off from work, but they’re negotiating a big deal in London and he’ll be gone for weeks. There was just no way he could get back here.”
“Yes, I’m sure he’s quite distraught,” Emma said. Her tone was as dry as a hot wind.
“Really—“ Mac began but Emma shook her head.
“It’s fine,” she said. “In fact, it might be for the best.”
“What do you mean?” Mac asked. She didn’t like the gleam in Emma’s eye. Their friendship was based upon a lifetime of one of them having a really stupid idea and the other one agreeing like a dope. Sometimes she was amazed they had even survived to adulthood and now whenever she saw that glint in Emma’s eye she got nervous.
“This isn’t like that time you thought it would be a great idea to dress up in gowns and follow Tim Tucker and Kyle Richards to their prom because you thought they needed dates, is it?” she asked.
“That plan totally would have worked,” Emma protested.
“Yeah, if they actually hadn’t already had dates that they were on their way to pick up, but they did,” Mac said.
“My intel was bad,” Emma admitted. “But, hey, we hung out at the Frosty Freeze all evening and met those cute guys from Portland.”
“Who were in college.”
“It wasn’t my idea to go to Belmont Park with them. That was all you,” Emma said.
“When your dad found us…” Mac said. She hissed a breath through her teeth, the memory still made her toes curl.
“And he brought your dad for back-up,” Emma said with a laugh. “I didn’t think we’d ever see daylight again.”
Mac laughed. It was true. Her father, the mildest man who ever lived, had been so outraged he couldn’t even speak. It had been days before she was allowed to leave her room unsupervised.
“Well, we were only fourteen and we did sneak out of our houses,” Mac said. “We can’t blame them.”
“Still, totally worth it.” Emma held up her fist for a bump. Mac frowned.
“Is that still a thing?” she asked.
“Come on, give me bones,” Emma cajoled.
Mac bumped her knuckles into Emma’s with a smile.
“Okay, so here’s the deal,” Emma said. “I’m pairing you up with Gavin for the wedding.”
Mac felt her insides spasm. She picked up her drink and tried to look casual, although she feared she looked like she was about to get sick which was not far off the mark. She took a healthy swig, because that would surely help, before speaking.
“Oh, okay, I didn’t realize he was Brad’s best man,” Mac said.
“He’s not, Brad’s brother Bobby is,” Emma said. “Gavin is more the second in command of the ring, but since he just went through that nasty break up, I thought it would really cheer him up to be paired with you.”
“Okay,” Mac said. She wanted to slap herself. This was not okay. There was nothing okay about this. She drained her glass.
“I figure we’ll just have Bobby stand with Brad and then Gavin can walk you into the wedding and be your escort at the reception and all of the other wedding events. That way you won’t have to feel self-conscious about being solo, especially when you’re coming home for the first time in forever. Perfect, right?” Emma asked.
Mac nodded. She had no other choice since her powers of speech had vanished in one swallow like the booze in her glass.
“Are you sure?” Emma asked. She squinted at Mac. “You know I wouldn’t ask but the beyotch who broke Gavin’s heart ran off with his business manager who absconded with most of Gavin’s savings before departing. Honestly, I’ve never seen Gav so depressed, and I just thought since he’s had a crush on you for forever—“
“No, he hasn’t,” Mac argued.
“Uh, duh, yes he has, like since he was eight,” Emma said. “It’s really so adorable. So, you’re good with this?”
“Yeah, of course, I’m good, really good,” Mac said. She bobbed her head in what she hoped looked like an affirmative motion and not the panic induced seizure it actually was.
“Yay!” Emma clapped and then hugged Mac in a hold that strangled. “Oh, and do me a favor and don’t mention to Gavin that I asked you to pair up with him or that you have a boyfriend.”
“You want me to lie to Gavin?” Mac asked. She was the world’s worst liar.
“No!” Emma insisted. “Just, you know, don’t tell him everything.”
“Yeah, that’s lying by omission.”
“Maybe but you do owe me one.”
Mac lifted one eyebrow and looked at her friend in surprise. They had never tallied the favors between them before and she couldn’t believe Emma was doing it now.
“I hate to mention it, but when you blew out of town after your aborted wedding, who cleaned up the mess?” Emma asked. “Who wrote a million thank you notes and returned all the gifts? Who made peace with the photographer, the caterer, the band, do I need to go on?”
“No,” Mac grumbled. “I know you did all of that for me and I am forever grateful.”
“And you always said if there was anything you could do to pay me back, all I had to do was ask, well, I’m asking,” Emma said.
Mac let out a sigh. She had always known this day would come, but she had thought it would entail babysitting Emma’s kids while she and Brad took off for a romantic weekend. She had never envisioned this exacting of a payback.
“Of course, I want to help out anyway I can. It’s just I don’t think I can hide the truth from…oh, no, don’t you dare,” Mac ordered. It was too late.
Emma was looking at her with big, blue imploring eyes. This was the best weapon in Emma’s how to bend people to her will arsenal. She could do the sad puppy eyes like no one else and she had employed this very trick to get them out of several sticky situations over the years.
“No.” Mac shook her head, trying to ward off the look. “Sad puppy eyes will not work on me. I’m immune. Seriously, I am not some ticket agent at the airline that you can bamboozle into upgrading you to first class for free.”
Emma ducked her head as if she was about to cry and Mac felt the twist in her gut that indicated she was going to lose this contest of wills. She had to fight it.
“I mean it, Emma,” she said.
At the sound of her name, Emma glanced up with sad puppy eyes fully engaged and she added the quivering lip. Boom.
“Oh, hell!” Mac snapped. “Fine, I’ll do it, but if Gavin straight out asks me if I’m seeing anyone, I am not going to lie to him.”
Emma’s face cleared like a blast of sunshine through a cloud. “I knew I could count on you, Mac. Everything is coming together just like I hoped. This is going to be the best wedding ever.”
Mac forced her lips to curve up. It must have looked better than it felt because Emma continued to beam at her.
“Come on, let’s go dance,” Emma said.
“You go ahead.” Mac gestured at the table. “We have drinks coming so I should wait.”
“Come out when they get here,” Emma ordered.
She skipped off to the dance floor and Mac watched as she tapped in and Carly tapped out. She didn’t think she was imagining that as Carly walked, she listed to the side like a leaky little boat.
“I think I got a hitch in my get-a-long,” Carly said. She stretched out her back and sat down just as the waitress arrived with fresh drinks. “Ah, timing as they say is everything.”
Mac resisted the urge to knock back all four drinks in front of her. Instead, she paid the waitress and tipped her generously hoping that it would give her a positive Karmic boost of which she was suddenly in desperate need.
“Spill it,” Carly said.
“What? My drink? Where? On my dress?” Mac asked. She glanced at the front of her outfit to see if she was sporting a wet spot.
“No, tell me whatever it is that has you looking like you’re facing a death squad,” Carly said. She sipped her drink and looked at Mac through half-lidded eyes.
Mac knew there was no point in lying. As soon as Carly heard the news, she was going to freak out.
“Since I’m going stag to Emma’s wedding, she just asked me if I’d mind being paired up with Gavin for the festivities,” Mac said.
The lids on Carly’s eyes snapped up. “Gavin, as in her little brother Gavin? The boy she raised as her own since their mother died? The same man-boy you slept with in a singular lapse of good judgment when you got dumped at the altar seven years ago? The one man in your personal history that Emma does not know about, that Gavin?”
“Yep,” Mac said. She lifted her drink to her lips and downed it. “That Gavin.”
TITLES BY SERIES:
Bluff Point Romance
Library Lover's Mysteries
London Hat Shop Mysteries
Good Buy Girls Mysteries, writing as Josie Belle
Decoupage Mysteries, writing as Lucy Lawrence