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Every woman has a fantasy. Some wish for a handsome prince to come riding up on his white charger and carry her away to that legendarily well-touted Happily Ever After. Some long for fame on stage or screen, being the one woman in the world every man sees, desires, goes majorly stupid over. Some long to be captains of industry, and can actually see themselves in snazzy corner offices, wielding their power with a brilliance that earns them the cover of Time magazine.
Holly Hollis had set her sights a little lower this fall day in New York City.
All she wanted—and only for an hour, at that—was a man. Living, breathing, capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.
Just give her a man.
Ah, come on, somebody send her a man.
Oh, and could some kind providence please make him a size thirty-eight long...? "Jackie! Brides glide. They do not clomp. Maybe you're modeling Eddie Bauer Mountain Momma wear next week, but this week it's Sutherland's, and Sutherland designs call for gliding. Got that?"
"I can't help it, Holly. It's these shoes. They're too small." Jackie, the six-foot-tall model, her bones and skin—she may have had a fat cell sometime in her life, but she'd banished it long ago—made a face. She was clad in a Sutherland bridal gown, looked fabulous, but walked toward Holly Hollis like a duck in hip boots.
"Shoes!" Holly called out to anyone who'd listen, and within moments there were a half-dozen hands holding out a half-dozen pair of shoes. White satin pumps. Ivory lace-covered heels. Plain shoes. Shoes with silver buckles. Shoes with heels so curved they looked as if they'd warped.
"Size? Come on, come on. Concentrate, Jackie. What size shoe do you wear?" Holly commanded, and Jackie told her. Holly smiled. There is a God, and She gives small pleasures when She can. "Okay, somebody find me a size twelve for Jackie."
"Gosh, Holly," Irene Collier said, frowning. "I don't think we have any twelves. Twelves? Couldn't she just wear the boxes?"
Think, think. Holly had to think. "Okay, look," she said to Jackie, tipping her head back to glare up into the model's eyes. "Tell me what shoes you wore here today. Maybe they'll work."
Jackie frowned. Not a lot, because she was twenty-eight now, and the thought of frown lines were one of her obsessions. "Hiking boots. Brown lace-ups."
Holly pursed her lips, sort of swung them back and forth over her teeth as she searched her left brain, then her right brain, hoping for inspiration. "Nope. Some designers would put hiking boots with a wedding gown and call it a new look. But not Sutherland. Okay, here's the deal. Barefoot, Jackie. You're going down that runway barefoot."
Jackie raised one well-waxed eyebrow. "You're kidding, right?"
"Wrong," Holly said, taking the model by the elbow and guiding her over to the short set of steps that led up to the curtain behind the runway. "You're a blushing bride. On the beach in Maui. At dawn. Irene—tell her escort to get rid of his shoes. And his socks! Don't forget his socks. Then tell him to go down the runway first, stand at the end, holding his arms out for Jackie's entrance."
"At the end of the runway? Barefoot? You sure?"
"Don't push, Irene. I'm working on the edge here. Okay, Jackie. You carry your flowers—Irene, flowers! That's it. Now, Jackie, you carry your flowers in one hand, use your other hand to sort of lift the front of the gown as you trip along the beach to your intended. Not clomp, not jog, not even trot. You dance across the sand, love in your eyes, your heart pounding, your veil caught in the ocean breeze. Feel it, Jackie. Feel the morning sun on your face. Smell the salt air. Irene, give me tear-jerker romance music. Something with swells in it or something like that, okay?"
Jackie had her eyes closed, "feeling" the scene.
Jackie was a "method" model, whatever the hell that was. Something like a "method" actor, Holly supposed, except she got paid better, and the hours weren't so long. "I see it," Jackie said. "Yes, I see it."
"Well, whoop-de-do, she sees it," Holly muttered as Jackie went tripping off to Maui—or down the runway set up in the main ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. "Size twelve? The woman could stomp out small villages. Okay, Irene, what's next?"
"You are overworked, aren't you? That's it, Holly. Jackie was the last before the grand finale, and that's all set, already running like clockwork. We've got a good crew, one person assigned to each model. Take a break, maybe even breathe. We've got fifteen minutes before the last bride goes down the runway and you have to go out there."
Irene handed Holly a clipboard, then went in search of a flower girl model who she'd just seen—in her lovely white gown—ripping open a chocolate bar.
Holly staggered over to the refreshment table, snagging a can of diet soda before finding an empty chair and collapsing into it. This was her first showing without her boss and friend, Julia Sutherland Rafferty, by her side, and if she ever had to do another one without Julia's help she'd have to first go heavily into self-medication.
Holly had come to work with Julia when Sutherland was little more than a dream. They'd set up shop in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Julia concentrating on ready-to-wear clothes for the young and young at heart. Washable, affordable, cut on simple yet classic lines—perfect for the young mother, the female executive, the increasingly fashion-conscious grandmother set.
In other words, Julia's designs had a universal appeal, and the small Allentown business grew in leaps and bounds, until Julia's designs were shown twice yearly in New York, just like all the other "big" designers.
Holly hadn't known a gusset from an inseam when she'd started out with Julia, as her area of expertise had been in crunching numbers, chasing after overdue orders, hiring and firing—the nuts and bolts sort of work that left Julia free to create.
But the creative end of the business called to Holly, and she'd studied everything she could get her hands on, watched Julia, and soaked up knowledge like a sponge. Now, more and more, there were other employees to do the books, the ordering, the payroll and such, and Holly had taken over more of the "outward" part of the business.
Meeting with buyers, broadening their customer base, even sitting in with Julia as she selected materials, having some input on new designs.
The whole experience had been a joy, from the first day she and Julia had opened the door at Sutherland to today, when the company had grown to be one of the most recognized brands in the country.
Julia and Holly had become much more than simply employer and employee. They'd become friends, close friends, which was why Holly had been so thoroughly shocked two years earlier when this Greek god of a guy had shown up and introduced himself as Julia's husband.
Holly took a sip of soda. Man, that had been a day.
That had been weeks of "man, what a day," actually, until Julia and Max Rafferty had figured out that their separation had been a mistake and Holly got to watch a little "happily ever after" up close.
Julia's dad and mom, who'd been unhappily retired in Florida, had happily moved back to Allentown, and now Jim Sutherland oversaw much of the actual production while Julia and Max—and now Max, II—lived in Manhattan almost exclusively, near Max's businesses.
Julia relied heavily on Holly, and Holly liked that, liked the responsibility, enjoyed the pressure.
But she hadn't counted on being in charge of the initial showing of Julia's new interest, bridal wear. Sure, she'd always attended all Sutherland showings, but it had been Julia who'd run them, and run herself ragged, taking care of any last-minute glitches, herding models, pinning ripped hems and taking the applause and bows at the end.
But Julia had Max II now, and she left her five-month-old only rarely. She had planned to leave him with a sitter today, but Max had the sniffles, and Julia had dumped the entire show in Holly's lap saying, "I know you can do it."
Holly looked around at the chaos that circled her like a gaggle of dyspeptic buzzards. Models, everywhere. Gowns, everywhere. Makeup artists, seamstresses, caterers, little kids chasing each other, male models posing as if there must be cameras hidden everywhere.
And yet she'd made it to the homestretch with only one glitch—Jackie's big feet. Thank God Jackie was only scheduled to model two gowns.
Holly longed to slip into the crowd of reporters, buyers and society matrons on the other side of the curtain, just for one quick minute, to hear how they liked the show so far. She could still do that, as she wasn't Julia; tall, beautiful, definitely recognizable Julia Sutherland Rafferty.
Because she was just plain old Holly Hollis. All five feet one inch, and one hundred and six pounds of her. Nobody noticed her, never did, not in this fashion world of the giants. She could slip outside, listen to the buzz and know whether or not the latest Sutherland venture was looking like a hit or a miss.
Holly put down the soda can and got to her feet. She walked over to the makeup area and peered into one of the mirrors, checking to make sure she didn't look as wild-eyed as she felt. Nope, still the same old Holly Hollis.
Her chestnut hair always looked out of place, because it had been cut to look that way. Short, spiky on top to give her some needed height, with wisps cut into the sides and at the back, then sort of combed forward, to touch on her forehead, her cheeks, her nape.
Julia had talked her into the cut, saying that her small frame cried out for a little drama, and that the cut accentuated Holly's huge green eyes, set off her slightly pointy chin.
"Right," Holly said now to her reflection. "Now all I need is a harness and a sky hook, and I can play Peter Pan on Broadway."
Holly turned around, to see Irene making a face. Not good. Irene didn't make faces. She endured. She conjured miracles. She followed Holly around with a figurative broom, sweeping up problems and making them disappear.
"Problem?" Holly asked, figuring that, at the least, the Waldorf had just caught fire.
"It's the finale," Irene said, wincing as she took the clipboard from Holly. "We're minus the groom."
Holly looked around the huge room, counted heads. There were male models all over the place. "What do you mean, we're minus the groom? Pick one."
"That won't work, Holly," Irene told her with the tone of someone pointing out that, yes, by gum, the sky is blue.
"It won't work?" Holly asked, abandoning her idea to go scope out the reporters and buyers. Oh well, she probably wasn't dressed for the part of Secret Squirrel anyway, not in her kelly-green sheath, her wrist pincushion and the pink feather boa she'd forgotten she had wrapped around her neck—an expensive accessory for the bridal lingerie portion of the showing she didn't want stuffed in some sticky-fingered model's purse and walked out the door. "Don't tell me it won't work, Irene. I don't want to hear that it won't work." She sighed, then ended, "Okay, tell me why it won't work."