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Prospective bank robbers probably cased the joint less thoroughly. Elizabeth Carstairs had driven down Chestnut Street in her five-year-old compact SUV at least six times in the past week—and three times in the past hour. Down Chestnut, right on Sixth, right on Maple, right on Seventh, right on Chestnut. She had been going in squares rather than circles but getting just as dizzy. And each time, she slowed the car as she passed the old, Victorian three-story, painted a whimsical shade of violet with darker violet and green trim. A beautifully restored painted lady, as Elizabeth had heard such houses called, set back from the street and surrounded by clever shrubbery that drew the eye toward the house and the painted sign on the front lawn.
Second Chance Bridal. And, beneath that intriguing name, in flowing script, this further explanation: Because sometimes two (or three) is the charm.
Elizabeth now stood on the sidewalk in front of the house, having finally parked her car a block away when she'd at last convinced herself she was being an idiot. She stared at the herringbone-design gray brick walkway that led to the covered wraparound porch and the double doors set between matching bay windows displaying gowns on headless mannequins.
A bridal shop. That's all it was. People went inside bridal salons all the time. Looked around. Didn't always buy something. Although it was probably a foregone conclusion that the person was there to buy, because the person wouldn't be looking at bridal gowns unless she was getting married. It wasn't like bridal salons also sold jeans and underwear or something. If you went inside a bridal salon, it could pretty well be determined that you were there because you were going to get married. And if the salon you entered was named Second Chance Bridal, it was also reasonably certain that you weren't exactly new to the process. Still, walking into a bridal salon was like being committed to the thing. Or, as Elizabeth was beginning to wonder about herself, like she should be committed.
No. She couldn't do it. The part of her that wanted to do it was hiding somewhere while the part of her that was scared spitless was standing front and center, feet itching to move back down the block, to the car, to escape.
"Hi there. I'm late, aren't I?"
Elizabeth turned toward the sound of the voice. A bouncy, bright-eyed woman of about thirty, her head a mop of wonderfully casual, light copper curls that all ended bluntly at chin level, was heading toward her, a wide smile on her face.
"Excuse me?" Elizabeth asked, tempted to look behind her, hoping the woman was talking to someone else.
The redhead was digging in her oversize shoulder bag now, obviously on the hunt for something. "I always think I'll have enough time for lunch and at least one errand, and I'm always wrong. I should have known there'd be a line at the dry cleaners. Ten dollars for two measly blouses? Two. Remember when everything was wash-and-wear? No muss, no fuss? Whatever happened to those days?"
Elizabeth only nodded, agreeing with the sentiment. She'd found herself ironing everything again when, for years, she'd pretty much used her steam iron as a doorstop. Now everything seemed to come out of the dryer in wrinkled clumps, especially the boys' shirts.
The woman pulled a set of keys out of her bag, along with a cell phone that she flipped open and then grimaced at, wrinkling her pert nose. "I stopped wearing a watch, thinking I could just see the time on my phone, you know? Very hip, very modern. I probably should have stuck with the watch. Yup, late. Nearly five minutes late."
Because she was naturally polite, and because she thought it might be time she tried to say something, Elizabeth said, "Oh, but—"
Which was as far as she got before the bouncy redhead held out her hand, leaving Elizabeth no choice but to take it.
"Hi, I'm Chessie Burton. And you must be my two o'clock. What do you say we get out of this hot sun?"
"I, um, I…" Elizabeth couldn't seem to get past Chessie's beautiful, open, smiling face and velvet steamroller charm. "Yes, sure. It is hot, isn't it?"
"For this early in June, yes. I think so," Chessie said, leading the way up the gray brick path—or The Last Mile, as Elizabeth had been thinking of it. "But that's the beauty of Pennsylvania, don't you think? We get all four seasons. I couldn't imagine living with such heat year-round—or never getting to see the trees turn colors in the fall. Of course, after the first snowfall I always think I've seen enough, thank you, and begin hoping for spring. Ah, here we go."
Chessie had inserted one of the keys from her ring into the big brass lock and pushed open the old-fashioned door. An air-conditioned breeze rushed out at them, and Elizabeth hastened inside, drawn by both the coolness and the sweet smell of fresh cut flowers.
While Chessie flipped the sign in the front window from Closed to Open, Elizabeth looked around the high-ceilinged room made welcoming by the clever arrangement of chairs and tables that spoke more of a fancy parlor than a place of business.
"What a pretty room," she said, pretending not to notice the glass cases displaying gloves and headpieces and ring-bearer pillows and pretty white leather-covered books with words like Our Wedding stamped on them.
"Thank you." Chessie walked to the half-circle reception desk and flipped open an appointment book. "Hmm, that's funny. I don't have a two o'clock anymore. Eve marked it as canceled." She looked at Elizabeth. "Good Lord, don't tell me I just kidnapped you off the street."
Maybe it was the beautiful building. Maybe it was at last being inside it rather than circling the place like some loon. Or maybe it was the comically horrified look on Chessie's expressive face. Whatever it was, Elizabeth felt her nervousness melt away as she laughed softly.
"You didn't kidnap me. I was…well, I thought I might be coming inside anyway. I'm Elizabeth Car-stairs, by the way. I probably should have said that earlier, but—"
"But I wouldn't let you get a word in sideways," Chessie interrupted, nodding knowingly. "Sorry about that. I could put on a fresh pot of coffee, but I make miserable coffee. Would you like a soda? Diet or regular?"
"Regular, thanks," Elizabeth told her, any lingering thoughts she might have of finding a way back out to the street now gone. "I don't have an appointment, you know."
"That's all right. Obviously, neither have I." Chessie opened a bottom door on what looked like an antique highboy chest but somehow housed a small refrigerator below the double top doors and pulled out two cans of soda. Opening the top doors revealed neat rows of glassware and some small dessert dishes. With swift efficiency, ice was put in the glasses, sodas were popped open and poured and pretty vanilla cookies with fruity centers were arranged on one of the dessert plates.
Chessie used the plate to motion to the Queen Anne high-back chairs arranged around a low coffee table in front of a fireplace currently fronted by a large bouquet of live flowers.
"So," she said once they both were seated and Elizabeth was carefully putting her glass down on what looked to be a hand-crocheted lace coaster, "when's the wedding?"
And there it was, the big question, or at least one of them. "I don't know," Elizabeth answered honestly, and then smiled weakly. "I haven't really said yes yet."
Chessie tipped her head to one side. "And you thought maybe trying on some gowns might help you make up your mind?"
Elizabeth was genuinely surprised. "You're a mind reader?"
"No, although wouldn't that be fun? Second-timers are a more wary lot, I've found, that's all. First-timers rush in—like all fools, right? But the second time around? We tend to look a whole lot more before we leap."
"You sound as if you've got experience in that area."
"Not really. Let's say I'm still licking wounds from an almost first time, not that they aren't pretty well healed. My very first sale was my own never-used wedding gown." Chessie slapped her hands against her thighs and stood up. "Come on. Let's go play."
"Oh, but I don't want to waste your time," Elizabeth protested. She noticed that she was standing up and following the woman even as she was saying the words. "I'm really not here to buy."
"And I'm not here to sell. Well, that's not true, is it? I own the joint, so of course I want to sell. But I don't have any more appointments this afternoon. Only Eve has a three o'clock, and we just got several new gowns in this morning. I'm dying to see them on somebody other than myself. You're a four?"
"Uh…yes. A four. I don't think I'm wearing the right bra to be trying on gowns." Not the right bra, not the right anything, considering she was clad in a simple white tank top and a plaid skort that had probably seen better days. "And sandals. Sandals aren't quite the look, are they?"
"Mere details." Chessie opened an ornately paneled ivory wood door, its design picked out in gold, and motioned for Elizabeth to step inside a large dressing room. There was a sort of raised stage in the middle of it and several rather full half slips hung from pegs on one wall. "You'll find strapless bras in the top three drawers of that chest over there. We probably have your size. Shoes are on the shelving behind the door. I'll give you a few minutes and be back with the goodies."
Once the door was closed and Elizabeth was alone, she looked at her reflection in the three-way mirror, still not quite believing what was happening. Chessie Burton was like some friendly tidal wave washing over her, and she didn't seem to have the will to resist.
Or maybe she really wanted to try on wedding gowns?
"And how are you going to know if you don't try?" she asked her reflection. Her reflection stuck its tongue out at her.
She found a strapless push-up bra in the second drawer and quickly stripped down to put it on before sliding out of her sandals and into a pair of white backless heels that made her doubly aware that all she was wearing were the bra and her hip-hugging underpants. High heels and underwear. Now, there was a look.
Elizabeth bit her bottom lip on a giggle just as Chessie knocked on the door and then entered the room, carrying several plastic bags she held up high by their hangers. "I only brought three. It's so easy to feel overwhelmed. And only the ivory and the blush. With your fair skin and hair, I think white would just wash you out, and who needs that?"
"I've already worn white. With twin boys at home, I really don't qualify anymore, anyway."
"I doubt one first-time bride in fifty does these days. But as Eve says, if you can wait the year or more it seems to take to hire the hall and plan a wedding without ripping each other's clothes off, well, then you probably shouldn't be getting married in the first place. In fact, that should have been my first clue."
"My pregnancy test strip turned positive the morning of my wedding. I don't know if the white gown made me look pale or if it was the morning sickness," Elizabeth said, no longer blushing at the memory. "I told Jamie when my father handed me off to him at the altar."
Chessie had unzipped the first bag and paused in lifting the gown out of it. "My God, what did he do?"
Now Elizabeth did blush. "Let's just say it was a good thing we had a videographer at the ceremony, because Jamie always said he didn't remember much of anything after that. Eight months later we had the twins. It was… a busy year."
"But a happy one, I can tell. Okay, here's the first one. It's a mermaid skirt, so you're going to have to step into it. I don't think it's your style. You're more wholesome than daring, I'd say, but everyone has to try on a mermaid skirt at least once, right?"
Elizabeth eyed the gown warily. "It looks rather… formfitting."
"And you've got the form to fit it, you lucky dog. I can't believe you carried twins. How old are they?"
"Danny and Mikey? They just turned seven. We only moved here around Thanksgiving of last year, so I'm still pretty much at a loss as to what to do with them now that school is out for the summer. They keep me pretty busy and— Oh, good Lord. Is that me?"
The gown fit her like the proverbial glove. She seemed to go in at all the right places and out at some mildly impressive other places. The material was beautiful, the lace exquisite, the skirt that flared out just at her knees a marvel of engineering. And she felt like a complete fraud.
"It certainly is all you. What do you think?"
"I think I should probably leave the glamour to someone who feels more confident in pulling it off."
"Agreed. Yet you'd be surprised at how many brides feel strapless and mermaid are the only way to go these days. Have you thought about T-ball?"
Elizabeth half shimmied out of the unsuitable gown, then rested a hand on Chessie's shoulder as she carefully stepped clear of it. "Excuse me?"
"For your boys," Chessie told her as she hung up the gown once more, zipping the bag as if to say "well, that didn't work." "Baseball, you know? This entire area is very big on youth baseball. The younger kids, like your Danny and Mikey, often hit from a sort of rubber tee. T-ball, get it? Or maybe they're old enough to have real pitchers. You'd have to check."
Elizabeth crossed her arms against her bare stomach, hugging tight her insecurities, as well as memories she still had trouble facing when they slammed into her unexpectedly. "Oh. Baseball. I don't know a thing about sports. Jamie bought the twins baseball gloves and these cute little footballs while they were still in the hospital nursery. He was so excited to think about teaching his boys how to play…."
She could feel Chessie's eyes on her for a moment, but then the other woman tactfully turned back to the clear plastic bags and unzipped another one. "I think this one will be more your speed."