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"Well. What do you think? Do I still look like an overstuffed silk sausage?"
Vivian Walker winced as her sister spun to face her, the taffeta of her wedding dress rustling. She would never live down the scathing commentary she'd given the day she'd gone dress shopping with her sister. Next time someone asked for her opinion, she needed to engage her edit function first.
"It looks gorgeous," she said, because it was true and because the big day was tomorrow and there was no way she was critiquing the gown her sister had chosen.
Jodie smoothed a hand over her hip. She'd been dieting like crazy and the classic fit-and-flare dress clung to her curvy figure perfectly, with not a hint of overstuffing. The lace overlay was delicate, the strapless sweetheart neckline flattering, the dove-grey silk belt the perfect accent for her slender waist. She really did look beautiful.
"You don't think I should have gone with something more modern?" Jodie asked, flicking her long, dark red hair over her shoulders.
"We can dash down to the mall now, see what the rental place has," Vivian suggested, poker-faced.
"Ha, ha, smarty-pants. That was your cue to tell me that this is the perfect dress, that there isn't a more perfect dress anywhere in the world, and that I look like a regal, sex-goddess-princess in it, et cetera, et cetera."
The guilt that had been hovering since her sister unzipped the dress's garment bag bit hard. Vivian scratched her nose to hide her reaction from her sister.
Was there anything worse in all the world than letting down someone you loved? She'd yet to find it, if there was.
"You look amazing, Jodie. Really, really stunning," she said, meeting her sister's eyes.
It wasn't a lie, not by a long shot, but they both knew that if things had gone according to plan, Jodie would be wearing a dress Vivian had designed. A one-of-a-kind creation that-in theory-would have been the culmination of all the hard work Vivian had put in over the past three years studying clothing design at the Melbourne Fashion Institute.
If only she hadn't made that stupid, impulsive offer when they'd gone shopping six months ago. If only she'd paused for a second to consider what she'd be taking on before she asked her sister to let her design something. But she'd been so disgusted by the safe, homogenized, boring dresses, and so full of herself after winning praise at a recent exhibition of student work at the institute, the offer-bold, brash, confident-had simply popped out of her mouth.
Jodie's eyes had lit up on the spot, and she'd done a happy dance around the changing room. "Viv, that would be so fantastic. And I know that whatever you come up with will be my dream dress, because you are so amazingly talented."
Panic had set in about thirty seconds later. This was her sister's wedding day. Whatever Vivian came up with needed to be off-the-planet extraordinary. It needed to be the best, most creative, most sublime thing she'd ever designed.
Was it any wonder she'd choked every time she sat down with her sketch pad to try to rough out ideas in the following weeks and months? Was it any wonder she'd made no less than twenty starts on twenty wildly different designs before throwing each and every one of them out? And was it any wonder her sister had finally let her off the hook after three months of unreturned phone calls and excuses, assuring Vivian that she was more than happy to buy a dress off the rack if designing one was proving too difficult?
That Jodie had wound up selecting one of the dresses Vivian had so vehemently critiqued and rejected on their shopping expedition was the icing on the cake of her guilt and discomfort. "What do you think of the veil? I'm still on the fence about whether to wear it over my face, or to do something with it in my hair, or maybe not wear it at all." Jodie picked up a lace-edged confection of white froth. "I tried all three options when we did the practice run on my hair and makeup, but I still can't decide."
Vivian pushed her feelings aside and stood. "Let's have a bit of a play, see what we can come up with."
She fiddled with the veil, trying different ways of pinning and draping it before slipping out to her car to retrieve her workbox. Big, black and heavy, it was actually a portable tool chest that she'd modified for her own purposes, the compartments filled with all manner of trims, haberdashery and sewing supplies she'd collected over the years. She rummaged through the sections until she found what she was looking for-delicate grey feathers that had been dusted with silver and some paste diamond jewelry she'd picked up at a yard sale. She tried a few different options before hitting on the right combination of antique brooch and feathers, pinning the veil so that it fell in delicate, sensuous folds down her sister's back.
"Oh, wow." Jodie inspected herself in the mirror. "Viv, I love it. Thank you," she said, flinging her arms around Vivian.
Vivian hugged her sister, even though she knew she didn't deserve her gratitude. "If you like, I could come up with something similar for your belt, embellish it a little. I could do it tonight, have it ready for you tomorrow morning."
Jodie's smile faltered and Vivian knew she was thinking about the dress-that-never-was, along with all the other things Vivian had screwed up over the years.
"We've got the dinner tonight. I don't want you to feel pushed for time," her sister said diplomatically.
"I won't be. It'll take me an hour, two tops. I really want to do this, Jodie." She left the rest of her plea unspoken. They both knew that a few embellishments on a belt and veil didn't come even close to compensating for how badly Vivian had let Jodie down, but it was something.
"Okay. Sure. Why not?" Jodie said, and it killed Vivian that she could hear her sister talking herself into trusting her again.
"I'll draw up some sketches before dinner and run them past you."
"You don't need to do that. You have wonderful taste. Whatever you do, I'm sure I'll love it."
The bedroom door opened then and their mother and the other two bridesmaids barged in, laden with champagne and glasses, all of them talking at once.
"God, Jodie, you look gorgeous! Like a fairy-tale princess," one of them said.
Vivian smiled to herself as she cleared her things out of the way. The princess reference was sure to meet with her sister's approval.
She stayed for one toast, but the belt was playing on her mind-she refused to let her sister down again- so she made her excuses and retreated to her childhood bedroom to sketch some ideas.
Their mother had converted Jodie's room into a study the moment she moved out, but she'd kept Vivian's as it was when she'd struck out on her own a year later, "just in case" Vivian needed it. The message being that while sensible, down-to-earth Jodie couldn't possibly fail to succeed in the adult world of rent and utility bills, flighty, unreliable Vivian was a much shakier proposition.
The galling thing was her mother had been right. Vivian had had to move home twice-once when she'd lost her job working in retail fashion, the second when she'd had a falling-out with her housemates. Worse, things were looking shaky at the apartment she shared with two other students at the moment, too.
Vivian sighed. It would totally suck to crawl home a third time.
Sitting on her bed, she arranged the remaining feathers off to one side, placing a selection of antique brooches next to them. She had another rummage through her workbox and unearthed a packet of pewter-grey and white sequins, along with some seed pearls.
Taking up her pad and pencil, she started to sketch. She had roughed out a design and arranged the component pieces on the belt when someone rapped on her door. She looked up, only registering how long it had been since she moved when her neck objected.
Her mother entered, dressed in a bronze silk pants suit, her faded red hair sprayed into a stiff helmet, gold jewelry gleaming at her ears, throat and wrists.
"Vivian. I've been looking for you everywhere. We leave for the restaurant in twenty minutes." Her expression became exasperated when she saw that Vivian was still in her jeans. "You're not wearing that, are you? This is the first time we'll be meeting some of Jason's extended family."
Vivian resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Her idea of fashion and her mother's had diverged a long time ago, but even she knew jeans were not acceptable for the private dining room of a swanky restaurant.
"I'll be ready," she said. "And I brought a dress."
Her mother's gaze dropped to the bed. "That's not Jodie's belt, is it? Does she know you have it?" Her mother started forward, clearly determined to rescue it from Vivian's clutches.
Vivian rested a protective hand over the arrangement she'd spent hours perfecting.
"Jodie gave it to me. I'm finessing it."
Her mother pursed her mouth. "I hope this isn't going to be like the dress. The wedding is tomorrow."
"Thanks, Mum, I'm well aware of that."
"There's no need to take that tone. I'm thinking of your sister. This isn't the time for you to go off on one of your whims."
"I'll finish tonight." Vivian ground out the words.
It was one thing to admit to yourself you were a screwup, but it was another thing entirely to have it pointed out by your nearest and dearest. Repeatedly. Ad nauseam.
"I'll leave you to change, then." Her mother gave the belt one last mistrustful glance before leaving.
Viv growled, then carefully unfolded her legs so as not to disturb the sequins and pearls. She didn't have time for a shower, so she concentrated on fixing her makeup before shedding her clothes and pulling on her dress. One of her own designs, it was made from an inky-blue wool crepe and had a loose blouson top with a peekaboo central split and a fitted pencil skirt. She'd been growing her strawberry-blond hair out of a short crop for the wedding, and she pinned it up before spritzing on perfume and racing downstairs.
"Only five minutes late." Her father made a show of checking his watch. "Got to be a new record."
Vivian wrinkled her nose at him. "But worth every second," she said, twirling for him.
He whistled appreciatively.
Her mother made a clucking noise. "You're a born flirt, Vivian. Try not to give anyone a heart attack tonight, okay?" She tried to close the peekaboo slit that revealed a hint of Vivian's decolletage.
"Relax, Mum. I know CPR."
Jodie laughed. "Not much to say to that, is there?"
They trooped out to the car, her and Jodie piling into the backseat.
"So is what's-his-name going to be there tonight?" Vivian asked as the car pulled into the street.
"I may need a little more detail than that," Jodie said dryly.
"Jason's brother. What's-his-name." The mysterious best man who hadn't made it to either the engagement party or the wedding rehearsal because he'd been "touring with his band."
"Seth. You might want to make a note of his name, since he's going to be your brother-in-law. Sort of. Family by association anyway."
"Goodie. I always wanted a brother." Mostly when one of her boyfriends had turned out to be a jerk-wad.
"Yeah Seth isn't really brother material."
Vivian gave Jodie a look. "What does that mean?"
"I think I'll let you work it out for yourself."
It was tempting to badger her, but Jodie was clearly bent on being mysterious so Vivian let the subject drop and asked about the itinerary for the honeymoon.
Their father was cursing under his breath by the time they entered the restaurant, ticked off after having to park on a side street because the restaurant's lot was full. Their mother murmured soothing words to him as they made their way to the private dining room.
Approximately half the guests had already arrived and her parents began to circulate, apologizing for being late, while Jodie made a beeline for a smiling Jason. Vivian lingered in the doorway to appreciate the lavish decor-over-the-top red velvet curtains with gold tassels, a long dining table surrounded by button-backed chairs in black velvet, lots of glittering candles and bevel-cut mirrors. Fancy.
Not really her cup of tea, but she could appreciate that a wedding called for a bit of pomp, and her parents would have the opportunity to do this only once, since it would be a cold day in hell when she agreed to marry someone. She might be barely twenty-three, but she knew that much about the life she wanted to carve out for herself. There would be no cozy domestic arrangements in the suburbs in her future. No matching rings and big white dress and public vows. There would definitely be no babies.
She was going to be a clothing designer. She was going to launch her own line and build it into a force to be reckoned with. One day, she would send a collection down the runway at Paris fashion week, and women would covet clothes bearing her brand.
The thought was still lingering in her mind when the huddle of people gathered at the far end of the table opened up and she caught sight of the tall, dark-haired man in their midst.
His hair was raven-black, brushed back from his widow's peak in a careless, windswept style reminiscent of an old-school, bad-boy movie star. Unlike everyone else, he'd eschewed a suit and tie and instead wore an open-necked black shirt and leather jacket with a pair of tuxedo pants and scuffed biker boots. She wanted to smirk at how try-hard the ensemble was-he might as well have the words wannabe rock star tattooed across his forehead-but was forced to admit that he more than carried off the look.
He was, in a word, sexy. And boy, did he know it. The knowledge was reflected in the way he held himself, the way he studied the people around him and in the small, knowing curve to his lips. He thought he was too cool for school and the best thing since sliced bread all rolled into one, with a helping of God's gift to women thrown in for good measure.
So, this was Jason's mysterious, never-around brother, Seth Anderson. Interesting.
A waiter glided by bearing a tray of champagne flutes and she plucked one for herself before he could disappear. Sipping at the bubbles, she went to greet her aunt and uncle, watching Seth out of the corner of her eye every step of the way.
He was easily the hottest guy in the room. She guessed he was about her age, maybe slightly older. She tried to remember what else Jodie had told her about him, but apart from the fact that he was lead singer in a band called Skunk Punk, Vivian came up blank. Since she'd never heard of his band-and who could forget that name?-she figured that his music career wasn't much to write home about, despite all the time he apparently spent touring.
But, hey, what did she know? Maybe he was about to break out and be heralded as the next Michael Hutchence.
He glanced up, scanning the room until he arrived at her. For a breathless moment their gazes locked, and a ripple of something forbidden and hot and reckless licked through her. His eyes were espresso-brown, and the glint in them was downright wicked.
He cocked an eyebrow, his mouth quirking into a speculative, assessing smile as his gaze traveled down her body and up again. Not to be outdone, she raised an eyebrow at him and gave him the same treatment, deliberately lingering on his crotch, just so he knew who he was dealing with.
He raised his glass in her direction, an unspoken acknowledgement that she'd trumped him. Or so she chose to think.
She turned her shoulder on him as she joined her aunt and uncle, exchanging kisses and greetings, doing her damnedest to appear as though she had better things to do than engage in eye-foreplay with him. Even though she was burningly aware of him.
Definitely interesting. Maybe this wedding wasn't going to be all pomp and circumstance, after all.