The limousine door opens, and the wedding guests let out a collective gasp.
Because the bride’s wearing green—chartreuse, to be precise.
Bliss Donahue gracefully exits the car and fluffs the tiered taffeta skirt swallowing the bottom half of her frame, oblivious to the slack-jawed expressions of the people witnessing her arrival at the Northern Virginia inn she’s chosen for the affair.
Like a veteran member of the Royal Family, Bliss stands in front of her imagined subjects and waves a single hand in the air, her face upturned to catch the sunlight just so. After a thirty-second pause for maximum dramatic effect, she takes several dainty steps along the cobblestoned path, the back of her ruffled dress fluttering in the April breeze. A few of the older female guests cluck their tongues and tut at the sight of her jaw-dropping gown. Others visibly cringe.
Discreet as always, I stand a few feet away, ready to troubleshoot any mishap threatening to ruin Bliss’s day. Although I warned Bliss the dress might overshadow the finer details of the otherwise elegant event, she was adamant that the unusual color accentuated her best features. In my view, the dress highlights her questionable fashion sense, but as the wedding planner, my job is to bring the couple’s vision to life, no matter how wonky that vision may be. To be clear, I’m not averse to voicing my concerns if the situation calls for it, but in the end, this isn’t my day, and if Bliss wants to walk down the aisle in a dress that looks as if it was cobbled together with Post-its to satisfy a Project Runway unconventional-materials challenge, I can’t stop her.
That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the unexpected. I’ve had great experiences with forward-thinking bridal attire (a wedding in which a lesbian couple both wore three-piece cream pantsuits is a personal favorite), and I’ll gladly support outside-the-box plans whenever possible—largely because I’d prefer the box didn’t exist. Sometimes, though, a ruffled chartreuse dress is just . . . tacky.
Now that Bliss has made her way inside the inn without incident, I pull out my phone and scan the ceremony checklist. I’m two lines down the list when Jaslene, my assistant and closest friend, appears at my back.
“Lina, we have a problem,” she says.
The news shoots through my veins like adrenaline. Of course we do. And that’s why I’m here. Armed with a renewed sense of purpose, I whip around and draw Jaslene away from the entrance to the wedding venue. “What is it?”
Jaslene’s face bears a relaxed expression. Good. There’s mischief in her dark brown eyes, however. Not good.
“Oh, no, no, no,” I tell her. “Your eyes are twinkling. If it’s funny to you, it’ll be terrifying to me.”
Grinning like a Cheshire cat, she grabs my arm and pulls me toward the stairs. “Come. It’s the groom. You need to see this for yourself.”
I follow her upstairs to the groom’s dressing suite and knock three times. Shielding my eyes, I open the door a crack. “If you’re not decent, you have fifteen seconds to cover up your important parts. I leave it to you to decide which parts need covering. One, two, three, four, five—”
“We’re decent. It’s okay,” Ian, the groom, calls out.
The strangled edge to his voice warns me that things are most definitely not okay, a conclusion confirmed by my own eyes when I sweep into the room and drop my hand. I blink. I gulp. Then I blurt out an obvious but clumsy question: “Where the hell are your eyebrows?”
Pointing in the direction of his three attendants, Ian groans. “Ask these a**holes. They’re the ones who thought it would be hilarious to shave them off the night before my wedding.”
All but one of the a**holes study the floor. Needing a target, I lock eyes with the lone male who isn’t avoiding my gaze.
Slumped in an oversize armchair, with his dirty-blond hair in disarray, the groomsman burps and shrugs his shoulders. “We were drunk. What can I say?” He turns his bloodshot eyes toward the groom. “Sorry, man.”
I stride across the room and bend to the caveman’s eye level, my hands clenched into fists as a preventive measure. “Sorry? That’s all you’ve got? There’s a bride out there who’s been dreaming about this day for months. She wants it to be perfect. She wants to remember it for years to come. Now she’ll remember it as the day she married a man with the skin of a newborn hamster above his eyes. And ‘sorry’ is all you have to say?”
Jaslene clutches a stretch of fabric on the back of my dress and pulls me upright. “Lina, this isn’t helping the situation.”
I bite the inside of my cheek as I compose my face into its usual cool-calm-and-collected expression. “You’re right. Okay. I’ll be back in a sec.”
Internally cursing the brotherhood of asinine groomsmen worldwide, I leave the room, dash down the stairs, and race to my car. Once inside my rusty-but-mostly-trusty Volvo, I rummage in the back seat until my hands land on the emergency kit. I pop it open, rooting around to confirm my makeup supplies are inside.
I return as quickly as my legs and sensible pumps allow, once again not daring to look at any of the wedding guests mingling in the foyer. When I reenter the room, I spy a woman who apparently joined the entourage while I was gone. I don’t bother to ask who she is or why she’s here. Chitchat won’t fix the groom’s brows, so I have no time for it.
After laying out the contents of my makeup kit on the dressing table, I drag a chair to the full-length mirror and pat the seat bottom. “Sit,” I tell Ian.
He regards me with a wary expression. “What are you going to do?”
“Do? I’m going to fix the mess your groomsmen created, of course.”
“Will it work?” he asks.
Probably not, but part of my job is to project confidence in challenging situations. I raise a small vial in the air. “This is fiber fill. It’s meant to enhance eyebrows, not create them out of whole cloth, but I’m hoping it’ll do the trick. Won’t be pretty. Still, you’ll have something up there when you say ‘I do.’”
Resembling a pack of hyenas with their tongues hanging out, the groomsmen huddle together and guffaw at Ian’s predicament. With friends like these, who needs jacka**es? When I direct my death stare at them, they straighten and study the floor again.
Ian peers at the vial more closely, then gapes at me. “My hair’s brown. That’s blond.”
“Yes, well, grooms whose buddies shave off their eyebrows the night before their wedding don’t get to choose from an array of hair color options. It’s either this stuff or a Sharpie. I can cover the blond with brow powder closer to your natural hair color afterward. We don’t have much time, though. What’ll it be?”
He swipes a hand down his face. “All right. Let’s do this. But don’t make me look like Mr. Spock, okay?”
“Got it.” With a shake of my head, and a prayer to the wedding gods, I get to work, holding in my laughter as best I can. He should be so lucky.
Needless to say, my job’s ridiculously messy—and I love it.
* * *
Standing in a corner of the outdoor tent, I watch the guests mingle and dance, secure in the knowledge that I’ve averted another crisis. Yes, the groom appears to be sporting carpet scraps above his eyes. And okay, the flower girl did blurt out, “Hey, he looks like one of those Angry Birds.” Nevertheless, my clients are happy, and in the end that’s what matters. Considering I was literally working with nothing, I’m calling this Browtox procedure a win.
Now I can enjoy my favorite part of the reception: the phase after the couple honors their chosen traditions and there’s nothing left for me to do except watch for last-minute glitches. This is when I finally relax a bit. Not too much, though. Many a wedding has been destroyed by the effects of an open bar. My skin still crawls when I remember the groom who removed his new partner’s underwear instead of her garter. Gah.
“Nice save back there,” someone to my left says.
I turn my head and survey the person, instantly recognizing her. “Thanks. You were upstairs in the dressing suite, right?”
“That’s right,” the woman answers.
“Related to the groom?”
Nodding, she presses her lips together, then lets out a resigned breath. “Ian’s my first cousin.”
“He’s a nice guy,” I say.
The woman raises an exquisitely arched brow and snorts. “A nice guy who loses his appeal whenever he’s around his douchebag friends.”
As if on cue, one of the groomsmen bares his overbite and begins to gyrate his hips as he passes us. Another one drops to the ground and inches his body along the parquet dance floor like a worm. Yet another does the Robot.
I watch them impassively even though her assessment is spot-on. “I can neither confirm nor deny.”
“No need to say anything, really. They douche for themselves.” She pivots to face me and extends a manicured hand. The move causes the ends of her razor-sharp blond hair, simply but expertly styled in a chin-length bob, to sweep across her cheeks. “Rebecca Cartwright.”
As we shake hands, I marvel at Rebecca’s sleek hair, something I’ve never possessed. Even now, my naturally curly hair is fighting against the millions of bobby pins holding my bun in place. I love the versatility of my own locks, so I’m not envious in the least, but I am fascinated by the symmetry of this woman’s appearance. I don’t doubt that if I split her in half and brought both sides of her body together, they’d match perfectly.
“I was impressed with what you did up there,” Rebecca says. She leans in a fraction and gives me a conspiratorial smile. “That’s got to be something you don’t see every day, right? A groom with shaved eyebrows?”
I can’t help smiling as I speak. “Believe me, dealing with wacky stuff like that is a perk of the job.”
Rebecca edges closer. “The wedding dress, though. There’s a story there, I’m sure.”
“This time, I plead the Fifth.”
Her blue eyes dance, then she nods sharply, as though she’s made a decision. “Discreet, too. Do you ever lose your cool?”
Rebecca’s studying my face with such laser focus that I wouldn’t be surprised if the red dot from a sniper’s automatic weapon were trained on my forehead. But she isn’t being creepy, exactly—just intense—so I ignore the weird vibe and concentrate on her question. Lose my cool? Rarely. Still, the moment when I wanted to throttle that groomsman immediately comes to mind. “Sometimes I slip, unfortunately, but most times I’m the one to hold things together, because if I lose it, my clients will lose it, too.”
“How long have you been planning weddings?” she asks.
Ah, is that where this conversation is headed? She’s looking for her own wedding planner, maybe? I chance a glance at her hands.
“I’m not engaged,” she says, flashing her ringless fingers. “Just curious.”
The tips of my ears warm. “Sorry, it’s an occupational hazard. I’ve been in the business a little over four years. Dotting the I Do’s, that’s me.”
“Clever,” she says, nodding and smiling. “Do you enjoy it?”
I stare at her, taken aback by the question. No one’s bothered to ask me that before. But I know what I tell prospective clients, and the pitch comes to me easily. “I enjoy the challenge of helping a couple settle on a meaningful wedding theme. Relish the opportunity to organize a couple’s special day down to the tiniest detail. If something goes wrong, and something always goes wrong, I take pride in coming up with a workable solution and keeping everyone happy. Challenging venues, scheduling snafus, catering flubs—that stuff’s a rush rather than a burden.”
Rebecca tilts her head and studies me, a crease appearing between her brows. “There must be a downside, though. Or something that frustrates you to no end. No vocation, not even one you’re passionate about, is without its challenges.”
I would never tell Rebecca this, but planning weddings is my second shot. A valiant effort to reinvent myself after my first career as a paralegal failed spectacularly. I’m the daughter of Brazilian immigrants, both from humble origins. And after my father left us, I was raised by a single parent who worked tirelessly to ensure a better future for my brother and me. I owe it to my mother and tias to rise above my shortcomings and succeed in my chosen profession. After all, their hard-earned savings helped get my business off the ground. Now there’s no more room for error. And that knowledge weighs on me. So heavily that I fear I’ll botch this chance as badly as the first. That’s the downside: The pressure to succeed can be stifling at times. But I’m not sharing my personal baggage with a stranger. Never let them see you weak is my mantra, and it’s served me well for years.
I mentally tick through the minor complaints I’m comfortable sharing with Rebecca and settle on an innocuous one. “Indecisive clients occasionally test my patience, but all in all, it’s a great gig.”
Rebecca points her chin in the direction of the dance floor. “You’ve done a wonderful job here, I must say. Other than the fact that the bride looks like a celery stalk, this truly is a lovely wedding.”
“Tsk, tsk,” I say with a shake of my head. “That’s no way to talk about someone celebrating her special day. Bliss is lovely in every way that matters.”
A flush spreads across Rebecca’s cheeks. “You’re right. She is.” Then she shrugs. “But as of today, she’s family, which means we’re going to talk about her behind her back whenever the situation calls for it. That’s just our thing.”
Honestly, I can relate. Over the years, my cousins and I have developed a set of hand signals and eye cues to talk s**t about our relatives or unsuspecting dates. Because we often use them during family get-togethers, music is usually playing in the background. At this point, my mother and aunts believe our inside communication system is an updated version of the Chicken Dance.
“So let me ask you this,” Rebecca continues. “Have you ever thought about expanding your business? Taking on a partner, perhaps?”
Nope, nope, nope. Despite the many challenges of being self-employed, my business is growing at a decent pace, and I don’t want anything to muck up the careful equilibrium I’m maintaining. I’d only alter the status quo for an opportunity that would take my company to the next level, and I’m hard-pressed to imagine any individual fitting that description. Knowing this, I deflect her question. “Well, tell me a little about you, Rebecca. Have you ever planned a wedding?”
Rebecca draws back, her mouth falling open as she considers me. “Never had the pleasure. Looks fun, though.”
Oh, now I see. I get this reaction at least once during every wedding. People get bowled over by the product—the breathtaking floral arrangements, the perfectly timed music, the stunning place settings, the heady scent of romance in the air—and convince themselves that they, too, can do what I do. “It is fun. But it also takes top-notch organizational skills and an exhausting attention to detail to pull off an event like this one. Thankfully, my assistant and I have a good system going. I’m hoping she’ll eventually agree to work with me full-time.” With perfect timing as usual, Jaslene glides across the dance floor, making a beeline for the DJ booth, the clipboard she stole from me tucked under her arm. And I know why: “Baby Got Back” is definitely on the couple’s do-not-play list. “But listen, if you’re interested in pursuing wedding planning as a career, an online course is a great place to start.”
Rebecca presses her lips together, plainly holding back a smile. “To be frank, you’re upending the plans I’ve already set in motion, but I think we were meant to meet today.”
What’s this woman’s deal? She’s not making any sense. “I don’t understand.”
She sighs and shakes her head, as if she’s frustrated with herself. “Sorry. I’m being cryptic, and you’re probably looking for the nearest exit. Basically, I have a proposition for you, but I don’t think this is the time or place to discuss it.” After removing an item from her clutch, she presents it to me. “Here’s my number. I can explain over lunch in the next few days if you’d like.”
Rebecca then slips away, disappearing into the circle of guests at the other end of the dance floor. I look down at the embossed business card on textured card stock as luxe as any wedding invitation I’ve ever seen. Along with her direct line in the 202 area code, it reads:
Chief Executive Officer
The Cartwright Hotel Group
**A Forbes-Rated Hotel**
That moment when you realize you’ve just made an a** of yourself? Yeah. That.