My curse—the grim fate of unavoidably hurting the people closest to me—has been plaguing me since before I drew my first breath. Some might think that’s hyperbole, but my twin—who died in utero—would disagree if she could. So would my sweet baby girl, whose heart defect took her away after just two days. Still don’t believe me? Ask my dad. He’ll tell you, like he’s told me and everyone else for as long as I can remember.
In any case, it’s why I’ll never again find myself preparing to walk down the aisle like the bridezilla client whose makeup I’m applying.
I swipe the bevel eye shadow brush across the palette while pushing through the pang that always accompanies the memory of my divorce. The irony that I spend my days surrounded by women in love who are planning new lives and families isn’t lost on me.
“Aren’t you done yet?” Sloane whines.
Every time she frowns, she creases the foundation I’ve flawlessly applied.
My colleague, wedding planner extraordinaire Melissa, had warned me that this bride was a pill. I don’t know whether to be grateful for the steady stream of work I get because I can endure difficult brides, or to resent it.
“The way you keep fidgeting, I’d almost guess you want this plum eye shadow to cross above your brows.” I lean back while flashing a smile, which puts my makeup palette within inches of the flowing white organza gown hanging to my left.
“Careful!” Her icy blue eyes are so cold, no one could call them pretty, despite their almond shape and naturally long, curled lashes. “That dress probably costs more than your rent.”
Two of Sloane’s attendants, whom I’ve mentally nicknamed Tweedledee and Tweedledum, snicker before they each guzzle another flute of champagne. The third, Olivia, whose makeup I did first, went to the restroom at least thirty minutes ago. At this point, I’m guessing drugs or bulimia…or both.
As for the cost comparison, my bare-bones, one-bedroom apartment in Sonoma totals almost two grand per month, so while Sloane’s hand-beaded gown probably retails for at least three times that amount, my rent isn’t cheap. And paying that rent is exactly why I have learned to tolerate the truly intolerable.
“We’re out of chocolates.” Tweedledee turns an empty bowl over and makes one of those pouty moues that only looks cute in a rom-com movie.
“Leighton, you don’t need more chocolate,” Sloane mutters without making eye contact with her friend. And by the way, I use that term loosely. From what I’ve observed this afternoon, these women are, at best, frenemies. They do all look remarkably similar—tall, slender, blonde—while sharing a bitter edge that comes from being perpetually hungry.
When Tweedledum snorts, Leighton bats her leg. “At least my balayage didn’t fry my ends like your highlights, Tori.”
Frowning, Tori immediately pulls the ends of her hair forward to inspect them.
Within minutes of my arrival two hours ago, I’d felt sorry for the groom. At this point, I’m beginning to think he must be out of his mind to love this snooty woman and put up with her clique. Maybe he’s just after her money. Really, that’s the only scenario that makes sense given the dearth of genuine joy in this room today. And, not for the first time this afternoon, I think it unfair that someone like her gets to be married, while someone like me had to divorce the man I loved to keep him safe.
“Where the hell is Olivia?” Sloane asks. “And where is Melissa?”
“Melissa went to check on the guests and your groom,” I reply.
“She’s never around when I need her,” Sloane huffs. I bite my tongue, which is twitching to defend Melissa, whose business is booming because she’s professional, creative, and solicitous. Sloane’s eyes remain closed while I finish applying shadow to the outer corners, then she says, “Leigh, go track down Liv and tell her to get her butt back here. I assume we’ll be finished soon”—Sloane opens one eye and looks at me—“and I want to take some candids before the ceremony begins.”
I’m not sure if she expects me to do double duty as a photographer, but we’ll never get to it if she doesn’t sit still.
Leighton pushes herself out of her chair and straightens the gorgeous blush-pink sateen Monique Lhuillier gown before trotting off to do Sloane’s bidding.
I pick up an angled lip brush and dab it across the “Rosecliff” lipstick, nick the brush across my wrist—which now hosts a rainbow of colors from the shadows, blushes, and lipsticks I’ve tested before applying on these ladies—then outline Sloane’s lips. She can’t talk while I’m creating the fuller-lip look she’d demanded earlier, so I’m taking as much time as possible to paint them.
Tori is sitting nearby, looking bored. Unlike most attendants and brides I’ve worked with, these two are barely talking to each other. I’d give up pizza, ice cream sandwiches, and my celebrity crush on Justin Hartley for just a single close relationship that didn’t end in disaster, so I can’t help the bitterness that bubbles in my stomach whenever I see normal people taking their friends for granted.
Leighton returns, looking paler than when she’d left. She’s grimacing so dramatically, Tori asks, “What happened to you?”
“Nothing. But Olivia…” She leans back as if preparing for a blow. “I don’t think she’ll make the wedding.”
Sloane’s whole body tenses, but she manages to wait until I pull the lip brush away before whirling around on Leighton. “What do you mean she won’t make the wedding?”
“She’s barfing and sweating, and way whiter than normal. She thinks maybe she caught the stomach bug from her nephew on Thursday.” Leighton moves behind the chair and I decide maybe she isn’t so dumb after all. At least she’s found cover. Tori and I remain totally exposed to the time bomb in the chair in front of me.
Sloane closes her eyes like it’s the only way she won’t explode. She doesn’t even feign concern for her friend, nor ask a single question about her health. Instead, her eyes pop open and she scans me from head to toe. “What size do you wear?”
I’m so taken aback, I blurt an answer before giving it any thought. “A zero, sometimes a two. Depends on the clothes.”
As usual, the litany of nicknames I’d been called throughout the years—Beanpole, Broom Handle, Bonejangles—springs to mind as I’m forced to acknowledge my slim figure.
“Perfect!” She claps, and a satisfied grin appears. I swear, that smile on her face is the first genuine one I’ve seen all afternoon. “You can wear Liv’s dress.”
“What?” I croak.
Even Tweedles Dee and Dum are blinking in surprise.
“I can’t have an uneven bridal party. The pictures will look horrible, and Josh won’t have a partner all night long.” Sloane stares at me as if I’m an idiot not to understand this logic.
“I’ll be Josh’s partner,” Leighton cuts in.
“No more substitutions. My mother and I have planned everything and I don’t need any more surprises or switcheroos!” Sloane spears me with those bright frosty eyes.
“S-surely you have another friend or cousin on the guest list who is more appropriate—”
“Not your size!” She rolls her eyes at me as if I’m the moron.
I shake my head. “Sorry, but I’m outta here as soon as I finish your lips.”
A glance at my makeup kit leads me to estimate that the quickest I can pack it all up is seven minutes, maybe five if I don’t worry about reorganizing it until I get home.
Sloane sits forward now, wearing a placating smile and talking to me as if I’m a child. “Look, obviously I’m desperate. What if I let you keep the gown?”
“I have no need for that.” In truth, I do love the bridesmaid gown, with its sweetheart neckline design and sumptuous fabric. I’ve never owned anything that fine in my life. If I shortened the skirt, it would be perfect for special occasions. Then again, my quiet, mostly solitary life doesn’t present me with many special occasions.
“Fine. I’ll also throw in an extra two-hundred-dollar tip if you just walk down the aisle, take the pictures, and stay through the bridal party dance. After that, you can take off if you want.” She stares at me in a manner that says she fully expects me to capitulate.
“Shouldn’t you check on your friend?” I stall, partly out of concern for Olivia, and partly because that two-hundred-buck windfall is hard to pass up. Against my better instincts, I’m actually considering this ridiculous request. I could use the extra cash, and I’d still have some left over even if I used part to surprise the little boy downstairs with that bike his mom can’t afford for his fifth birthday.
“And risk getting sick before my honeymoon? No, thanks.” She turns in her chair and tells Tori, “Go tell my mom what’s happened and have her send my Aunt Agnes to check on Liv and get her dress. Liv’s bag is there in the corner, so she can change back into her own clothes and then go sleep in the hotel room.”
Tori stands and starts for the door when Sloane calls out, “Don’t forget the shoes!”
It irks me that she knows she’s won before I’ve actually decided. “I haven’t agreed to stand up for you.”
“Three fifty and not a penny more.” She crosses her arms beneath her ample cleavage—another possible reason her fiancé might’ve proposed, I suppose.
“Done.” I hear the word before it registers. Looks like I’m no more immune to the power of cold hard cash than the next person. “Now let me finish your lips because right now they look stupid.”
As soon as I finish painting her mouth, I turn to the mirror and realize I’ve got some work to do on myself while she’s pouring herself into her wedding dress. Luckily I’d come without any makeup on, so I wipe down my face with some towelettes, apply some primer, and then add a light foundation.
I assume she wants me to minimize my freckles. She’d probably prefer if I were a blond-haired, blue-eyed clone of her posse, but she’ll have to accept me, my curly brown hair and hazel eyes, as is. I spy a few spare bobby pins and do up my hair into a cute mop with some fashionable tendrils dangling around my forehead and ears.
This ’do reminds me a bit of my prom, which revives the unwelcome memory of how my high school boyfriend had gotten food poisoning from the oysters at the restaurant I’d insisted we go to before the dance. I call these Ellie-caused misfortunes of lesser proportions The Curse Lite.
I’m barely finished with my makeup when Leighton reappears and shoves poor Olivia’s gown in my face. “Here, and these are the shoes.”
One look at the spike-heeled sandals tells me they’re a little too big. I might be slim like Olivia, but she’s at least an inch taller, and her feet are probably larger, too. I go behind the dressing screen that Bodega Vineyards provides in the anteroom where bridal parties prepare for the ceremony, and slip into the gown.
The silky fabric glides over my skin, tempting me to find a zillion reasons to wear it in the future, it feels that good. Maybe I can simply dress up each week to watch This Is Us with a glass of wine. I barely know Olivia, but the pleasure I’m taking in my new fantasy life makes me feel like a traitor. I slip on her jeweled dress sandals, which are in fact slightly loose but not unmanageable, and tighten the ankle strap. Even when I’m in the heels, the gown’s hem is about an inch too long and puddling on the floor.
“Well?” I hear Sloane ask.
I raise the skirt a touch and walk out from behind the screen, surprised to see Sloane’s mother and Melissa have rejoined the group, along with Mandi, the adorable little flower girl, Sloane’s six-year-old cousin. But I barely have time to acknowledge the familiar ache that squeezes me every time I’m around a child that age because Melissa’s exchanging a surreptitious look of pity with me. We’re both in a lose-lose situation, but, unlike these wealthy women, Melissa and I aren’t in a position to be choosy.
Rebecca Marsten and her daughter study me like they’re inspecting the Venus de Milo for defects. Rebecca flips over a bejeweled hand, her expression one of surrender. “I guess we must make do. I’ll have the driver take Olivia back to her room with some ginger ale and crackers to help settle her stomach.” Then she drops a wad of cash on top of my makeup kit.
“Good. We can’t delay much longer or Will might think I’m standing him up. Guess we’re out of time for candids now,” Sloane huffs. “Let’s get this ceremony going. Where’s my bouquet?” Sloane is turning in a circle when Tori hands her a gorgeous basketball-size array of pink peonies and white roses.
I feel woozy, but not because of the floral perfume wafting through the air. In all my years of doing bridal makeup, this is—without a doubt—the craziest scenario I’ve encountered.
Tori tosses a small bouquet at me. “Here you go.”
When I catch it, it feels more like a bad omen than a good one. Of course, I’m always on the lookout for bad omens because they seem to dog me wherever I go. The only good news today is that I do not care one whiff for these folks, so they are all safe.
“Liv was bridesmaid number three, which meant she was to be the first in line going down the aisle, so scoot up to the front now.” Sloan fiddles with her bouquet to figure out how to hold it comfortably, while her little cousin sways back and forth with her little basket of rose petals. “Your partner’s name is Josh, in case you missed that.”
“Lucky you,” Leighton mutters.
“I’m happy to trade places,” I say, having no interest in leading the processional from hell down the aisle. And if the groomsmen are anything like these bridesmaids, Josh will not tickle my fancy, either.
“I said there’s no trading,” Sloane hisses as her mom adjusts her lengthy veil before kissing her daughter on the cheek and dashing out to take her seat. “Can we please stop trying to mess up my plans?”
“Fine.” I lift the skirt again to move in front of Leighton and Tori.
“Don’t play with that skirt. It’s inelegant. Haven’t you ever worn a gown?” Sloane’s exasperated tone almost makes me turn around, strip out of the dress, and throw it at her. Then I think about little Owen—who, coincidentally, is the same age as my daughter would’ve been had she lived—and the bike with training wheels he’ll be ecstatic to receive. I also don’t want to put Melissa in a worse position with this client. Referrals are the lifeblood of our businesses, and I won’t be the cause of harming her reputation.
“It’s too long.” I drop the hem to demonstrate. “I’ll trip if I don’t raise it when I walk.”
“Maybe I can find some tape,” Melissa offers.
“There’s no time!” Sloane snaps. “Just take smaller steps so you don’t step on the hem. Melissa can find some tape to jury-rig it before the dancing.”
Sighing, I give up and simply turn around, figuring I can endure anything for ninety minutes.
Following a deep breath, I shuffle through the iron-and-wood doors and stand beneath the pink and peach tones of the early evening sky. Pachelbel’s Canon in D drifts through the air like a gentle cloud. Before I round the corner of the building, I wait to make sure everyone is lined up behind me, ready to go. I glance over my shoulder in time to see Sloane giving me the “get going” signal with her bouquet, so I brace myself for the surprised look that is sure to cross many guests’ faces when they see me. Only after I turn the bend do I notice that I forgot to wash the makeup off my arm. Oops.
I’m walking like a geisha to avoid catching the hem with my toes, smiling my best fake smile, when the scenery nearly knocks me over. The vineyard, which I’ve visited before, stretches across rolling hills in a bucolic patchwork quilt of greens, gold, and browns. But it’s the flowers that arrest me. Gigantic urns overflowing with ivy, peonies, roses, and hydrangea surround the rows of guests who are facing a pergola so swathed in blooms it looks like it’s constructed of them.
The tableau couldn’t be more different from my midnight wedding ceremony in the hot-pink-and-white Little Vegas Chapel. Cody and I might not have had the Marstens’ money or been encircled by all this natural beauty, but the purity of our young love had bathed that tacky space in an exquisite glow of its own.
I’m remembering this, fighting that twinge in my heart again, when I take my first steps onto the white carpet of the temporary aisle. I look ahead at the unlucky groom and send him a little prayer, ’cause he’ll need it. My gaze drifts to the groomsmen, all three standing like penguins beside their friend. One by one, I check them out.
I freeze when my gaze locks with the familiar blue gaze of groomsman number two. Cody? His eyes go round as poker chips.
My heart charges ahead like a stampede of cattle, tugging me along until I trip over the hem of the gown. The next thing I know, I’m sprawled flat on my stomach, bouquet tossed aside.
When the crowd gasps, I wave an arm overhead to prove I’m fine, snatch the errant bouquet, and stand with a smile and a shrug. Well, great. It’s not the first time I’ve been humiliated in front of Cody, and, judging by the way my day is going, it won’t be the last.
My ribs ache from my hammering heart. I struggle to catch my breath and reclaim whatever dignity I had. I won’t look back and give Sloane the satisfaction of burning me with a scorching glare, nor can I risk another look at Cody, so I stare at the minister and humbly make my way to the altar despite the sweat rolling down my back.