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Paige Danforth didn't believe in happily ever afters.
So it was a testament to how awesome a friend she was that she stood freezing her tush off outside a dodgy-looking Collingwood warehouse in the grey half-light of a misty Melbourne winter's morning with her best friend Mae who was there to buy a wedding dress.
Wedding Dress Fire Sale! Over 1000 new and used dresses, up to 90% off! read the massive hot-pink banner flapping dejectedly against the cracked brown bricks of the old building. Paige wondered if any of the other women in the line, which by that stage snaked all the way around the corner of the block, saw the irony of the hype masking the depressing reality. By the manic gleams in their eyes they all bought into the fantasy, for sure. Each and every one of them convinced they were the ones for whom the love songs and sonnets rang true.
'The door moved,' Mae whispered, grabbing Paige's arm so tight she knew it would leave a mark.
Paige lifted her long hair out of the way so that she could loop her thick woollen scarf once more around her neck and stamped her boots against the pavement to get her sluggish blood moving. 'You're imagining things.'
'It jiggled. Like someone was unlocking it from the inside.' Mae's voluble declaration spread up and down the line like wildfire, and Paige was almost pushed over in the sudden surge of bodies.
'Relax!' Paige said, prying her friend's ever-tightening claw from her arm while glaring at the rabid-looking woman pressing close behind her. 'The doors will open when they open. You will find the dress of your dreams. If you can't find yourself a dress in a thousand, then clearly you're a failure as a woman.'
Mae stopped twitching to glare at her. 'I should rescind your Maid of Honour duties for that alone.'
'Would you?' Paige begged.
Mae laughed. Though it was short-lived. Soon she was jogging on the spot like a prize fighter seconds from entering the ring, her usually wild red hair pulled into a no-nonsense ponytail, her focus fixed, as it had been since the moment her boyfriend had proposed.
All of a sudden the flaky wooden doors were flung open with a flourish, the mixed scents of camphor and lavender spilling into the air with a sickly sweet rush.
A tired-looking woman in skinny jeans and a T-shirt the same hot pink as the sign above yelled, 'No haggling! No refunds! No returns! No sizes bar what's on the floor!' The words echoed down the narrow lane, and the line of women mushroomed towards the doors as if she'd announced Hugh Jackman would be giving free back rubs to the first hundred through the door.
Paige barely kept her feet as she pressed forward into the breach, and then grabbed Mae by the shoulders as she screeched to a sudden halt. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, waves of women poured around them.
'Holy moly,' Mae said.
'You're not wrong,' Paige muttered, as even she was impressed with what she saw.
Sweetheart necklines by the dozen, beaded corsets as far as the eye could see, sleeves so heavily ruched they made the eyes water. Designer dresses. Off the rack dresses. Second-hand dresses. Factory second dresses. All massively discounted. Every last one of them to be sold that day.
'Move!' Mae cried out as she came to and made a beeline for something that had caught her now frantic eye.
Paige quickly tucked herself in a corner in the shadow of the door. She waved her mobile phone in the air. 'I'll be over here if you need me!'
Mae's hand flapped briskly above the crowd of heads and then she was gone.
What followed was a lesson in anthropology. One woman near Paige who wore an immaculately tailored suit squealed like a teenager when she found the dress of her dreams. Another, in a twin-set, glasses, and tidy chignon, had a full-on temper tantrum, complete with stamping feet, when she discovered one didn't come in her size.
All for the sake of an overpriced dress they'd only wear once at a ceremony that forced people to make impossible promises to love, honour, and cherish for ever. In Paige's experience it was more like bicker, loathe, and cling on for dear life until there was nothing left but lost years and regret. Better to love, honour, and cherish yourself, Paige believed. For the chance to dress like a princess one time in your life the relentless search for love couldn't possibly be worth it.
The scents of hairspray and perfume mixed with the camphor and lavender and Paige soon had to breathe through her mouth. Her fingers curled tighter around her mobile, willing Mae to ring.
Mae. Her BFF. Her partner in crime. They'd had one another's backs for so long, since their parents had gone through simultaneous messy divorces and had left them both certain that happy ever after with some guy was an evil mythone that had been perpetuated by florists and bakers and reception hall owners. Mae, who'd forgotten it all the moment she'd found Clint.
Paige swallowed. She deeply hoped Mae would be perfectly happy for ever and ever. She really did. But a hot spot of fear for her flared in her stomach every time she let herself think about it. So she decided to think about something else.
As brand manager for a luxury home-wares retailer, she was always on the lookout for locations in which to shoot catalogues, and, while the Collingwood warehouse was near decrepit, at a pinch the crumbling brickwork could be considered romantic.
Not that she wanted to shoot there any time soon. The next catalogue had to be shot on location in Brazil.
Period. Such a big expense for a single catalogue was as yet unheard of at Menage a Moi, which was a boutique business, but Paige knew in her bones it would be worth it. Her proposal was so dazzling her boss had to say yes. And it was just the shake-up her life needed
Paige shook her head. Brazil was the shake-up the brand needed. She was fine. Hunky-dory. Or she would be when she got the hell out of the building.
Breathing deep through her mouth, she closed one eye and imagined the massive windows draped in swathes of peacock-blue chiffon, the muted brickwork a total juxtaposition against the next season's dazzling, Rio-inspired, jewel-toned decor. Weak sunlight struck the glass which was in dire need of an industrial wash, made all the more obvious when compared with one incongruous clean spot that let through a single ray.
Dust mites danced in the sunbeam and Paige's eye naturally followed it all the way to a rack of wedding dresses, most of which boasted ridiculously excessive layers of skirt that would struggle to fit even the widest chapel aisle.
She made to glance away when something caught her eye. A glimpse of chiffon in dark champagne. The iridescent sheen of pearls. Impossibly intricate lace-work. A train so diaphanous it was lost as someone walked by the rack, blocking out the ray of light.
Paige blinked. And again. But the dress was gone. And her heart skipped a beat.
She'd heard the expression a million times, only had never experienced it until that moment. Didn't realise it came complete with a tightening of her throat, a sudden lightness in her head, and the complete cessation of thought.
Then someone moved, the ray of light returned, and there it was. And then she was standing. Walking. At the rack, her hands went to the fabric as though possessed by some other-worldly force. The garment came to her from between the tight squeeze of dresses as easily as Arthur had released Excalibur from its stone prison.
As her eyes skimmed over the softly twisted straps, the deep V, a torso of lace draped in strings of ocean pearls that cinched into the most exquisite silhouette before disappearing into a skirt made of chiffon that moved as if it breathed, Paige's heart galloped like a brumby with a horse thief hot on its heels.
'Wow,' a voice said from behind her. 'That's so cute. Are you just looking or do you have dibs?'
Cute? That was the best word the woman could come up with for the sliver of perfection draped over Paige's shaking hands.
Paige didn't even turn around. She just shook her head as the words she'd never thought she'd hear herself say escaped her lips:
'This wedding dress is mine.'
Paige looked up from her position back near the doors to find Mae literally skipping towards her.
'I've been trying to call you for twenty minutes!'
Paige's hand went to her phone in her pocket. She hadn't felt a thing. In fact, by the intensity of the light now pouring into the building, much of the morning had passed by in a blur.
Mae pointed madly at the heavy beige garment bag hooked over one crooked elbow. 'Success! I wanted you to see it but I couldn't get hold of you and this skinny brunette was eyeing it up like some starving hyena, so I stripped down to my bra and knickers and tried it on in the middle of the floor. And it's so freaking hot.'
Mae's eyes were now flickering to the fluorescent white garment bag with the hot-pink writing emblazoned across the front that was draped over Paige's thighs. 'Did you find a bridesmaid's dress?'
Paige swallowed hard and slowly shook her head. Then, unable to say the words, she waved a wobbly arm in the direction of the sea of white, ivory, and champagne frou-frou.
'Oh. For a catalogue shoot? You're doing a wedding theme?'
And there it was. The perfect out. The exorbitant dress was a work expense. That would even make it tax deductible and less taxing on her mortgage payments. But panic had clogged her throat shut tight.
Mae's eyebrows slowly slid skyward. Then after several long seconds, she burst out laughing. 'I thought I was the one who made bizarre shopping decisions when I wasn't getting any, but this takes the cake.'
Paige found her voice at last. 'What's that supposed to mean?'
Mae's spare hand went to her hip. 'Tell me quick, without having to think about it, when was the last time you went on a date?'
Paige opened her mouth to say when, and who, and where, but again nothing came out. Because for the life of her she couldn't remember. It had been weeks. Maybe even months. Rather than worry that she hadn't even noticed she hadn't been on a date in an age, she clutched onto the hope that there might be a reasonable reason for her moment of shopping madness.
'You need to get yourself a man and soon.' Mae tucked her hand through the crook of Paige's arm and dragged her to her feet. 'But until then let's get out of here before the smell of spray-tan and desperation makes me pass out.'
Paige stood in the single lift of the Botany Apartments at New Quay at Docklands, staring blankly at the glossy white and black tiled lobby floor, the decadent black paisley papered walls, the striking silver sun-bursts framing every door, all lit by the diffused light of a half-dozen mother-of-pearl chandeliers as she waited for the doors to close.
Was Mae right? Had her wholly daft purchase been the result of a recent spate of accidental abstinence? Like a knee-jerk reaction in the opposite direction? Maybe. Because while she had no intention of following Mae's path down the aisle, she liked dating. Liked men just fine. She liked the way they smelt, the way their minds worked, the curl of heat when she was attracted. She liked men who could wear a suit. Men who paid for drinks and worked long hours as she did and weren't looking for anything more than good company. The kind of men downtown Melbourne was famous for.
So where had they all gone?
Or was it her fault? Had all the extra energy she'd put into the Brazilian catalogue proposal taken it out of her? Or was she bored with dating the same kind of guy all the time? Maybe she was emotionally sated by the Gilmore Girls reruns on TV.
Groaning, she transferred the heavy white garment bag from one hand to the other, flexed her empty hand, and waited for the lift doors to close. And waited some more. It could take a while.
The lift had a personality all of its own, and as personalities went it was rotten to the core. It went up and it went down, but in a completely random fashion that had nothing to do with the floor she chose. Telling Sam the Super hadn't made a lick of difference. Neither had kicking it. Perhaps she should next try kicking Sam the Super.
Until then, all she could do was wait. And remind herself that a tetchy lift was a small price to pay for her little slice of heaven on the eighth floor. She'd grown up in a huge cluttered house filled with chintz and frilly curtains, and smelling of Mr Sheen and dried flowers and tension you could cut with a knife. And the first time she'd seen the sleek, open-plan opulence of the Botany Apartments she'd felt as if she could breathe fully for the first time in her life.
She closed her eyes and thought about the minimalist twenties decor in her apartment, the sliver of a view of the city, the two great-sized bedroomsone for her, the other her home-office-slash-Mae's-room when Mae was too far gone after a big night out to make it home. Though it had been an age since Mae slept over. Not since around the time Clint proposed, in fact.
Paige shook her head as if shooing away a persistent fly. The point was the lift was a tiny inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. Except those times when she was carrying something that weighed the equivalent of a small car.
Okay. If datelessness had led to the thing currently giving her shoulder pain, then she needed to do something about it. And fast. Or who knew what she might do next? Buy a ring? Hire the Langham? Propose to herself in sky-writing?
As her spine began to crumple in on itself Paige muttered, 'I hereby promise to throw myself upon the mercy of the next man who smiles at me. He can buy me dinner first. Or I can buy him a coffee. Heck, I'll share a bottle of water from the third-floor dispenser. But I need to get some man time and fast.'
An absolute age later, when the lift doors finally began to close, she almost sobbed in relief. Until at the last second a row of fingers jammed into the gap.
'Hold the door,' said the deep male voice on the end of the long brown fingers.
No-o-o! Paige thought. Once those doors opened, the wait for the perverse damn lift to head skywards would start over, and she might never get the feeling back in her shoulders again.
'No?' the male voice asked with a low note of incredulity, and Paige blanched, realising she must have said it out loud. It seemed years of living on her own had made her a little too used to talking to herself.
Feeling only the slightest twinge of guilt, she jabbed at the 'close door' button. Repeatedly.
But the long brown male fingers had other ideas.
They prised that stubborn door open with what was a pretty impressive display of pure brute strength. And then he loomed into view, a stranger, a great big broad one, his bulk blocking her view of the foyer entirely. Head down, brow pinched into a frown, he stared intently at the shiny smartphone in his spare hand.
Something about him had Paige pressing herself deeper into the small lift. Something else entirely had her eyes flickering rapidly over a well-worn chocolate-brown leather jacket with thick dark hair curling over the wool-lined collar. Over soft denim, lovingly hugging masses of long hard muscle, the perfect lines broken only by a neat rectangular bulge where his wallet sat against his backside. Down to huge scuffed boots. Huge.
Any calm and soothing thoughts the view of mother-of-pearl chandeliers and silver sun-bursts had inspired were swept away by the raw and unadulterated impact of the man. The sweet curl of heat she'd been thinking about earlier rushed into Paige's stomach like a tidal wave and colour rushed into her skin with a whoosh she could practically hear.
Then, before she even had a chance to collect herself, a husky voice inside her head sent the stranger a silent plea: Smile.