“Autumn? Is everything okay?”
She reared back with a gasp. “Rose! You scared me to death!”
Rose stood on tiptoe just outside the open window of the Ford F-250. “Sorry! You looked like you were going to be sick. Is everything okay?”
“I…yes. I think it is. I’m…” she glanced at the boutique. “Picking out my wedding dress.”
“Oh, my gosh! That’s so exciting!” Rose peeked into the cab of the truck. “All alone? Isn’t anyone going to help you?”
“I don’t know anyone in town.” Rose’s tone said it all – it was pathetic to shop alone for your wedding dress. Maybe she should have called Becka to see if she could fly in for a day or two. But then she’d have to explain everything.
“I’ve got some time. Can I come with you? I love looking at wedding gowns, and I’ve got a good eye!” Rose bounced on the soles of her feet and Autumn found herself smiling at the young woman. Why not? After all, she’d done a great job helping them pick out the diamond ring that sparkled on her finger.
“Please do! I was dreading going in there by myself.” She gathered her purse and let herself out of the truck, locking it behind her. When she turned toward the shop she caught Rose’s smirk. “What?”
“City girl – no one locks their cars here.” Rose linked her arm through Autumn’s and pulled her toward the store. “Come on, this is going to be a blast!”
Half an hour later, Autumn was thrilled she was in Chance Creek rather than New York. Ellie’s Bridals was run by Ellie Donaldson, a boisterous sixty-something-year-old with a biting sense of humor that had Rose and Autumn nearly in tears as she told stories of weddings past – both triumphs and disasters. The little boutique was crammed full of gowns. The minute Autumn walked through the door Ellie took her measure and pronounced she had just the thing.
Just the thing turned out to be armloads of dresses Ellie hung on a wire rack outside a hexagonal dressing room hidden toward the back of the store. She and Rose took turns helping Autumn into and out of the gowns and leading her to the pedestal in the center of a room with mirrors positioned carefully to reflect her from every angle.
They vetoed the majority of dresses before she even set foot out of the dressing room, but several possibilities had accumulated on a second metal rack.
“This is the one I really wanted you to try,” Ellie said, holding out what looked like a very simple gown. “I knew it was perfect the moment you walked in the door, but brides have to try on lots of dresses or they won’t be satisfied. Here – give this one a whirl.”
Rose helped her out of a lace covered prairie-style gown they’d all agreed looked absolutely hideous and slid the smooth satin dress over her head. The bodice was fitted, with a sophisticated draped front neckline and plunging back. The skirt clung to her curves, folds of fabric falling to the floor in an abbreviated train. She felt like a 1940s movie star.
“Wow,” Rose breathed. “You’re a knockout. Ethan won’t know what hit him when he sees you in this.”
Ellie nodded happily. “I told you – just the thing.” She helped Autumn up onto the pedestal and stood back while she drank in the picture of this new, incredibly sensual version of herself. Somehow the dress echoed the way Ethan made her feel – curvy, sexy and beautiful.
When the bell over the door jangled and someone walked in, they all needed a moment before they could return to the present.
“Take your time looking, dearie. I’ll see who’s out front,” Ellie said, leaving the inner sanctum of the changing area for the front of the store.
“Hi Ellie! I hope you aren’t busy, because I plan to monopolize you for the rest of the afternoon. I’ll be ordering my real wedding dress from Paris, of course, but I want to try on every gown you have to get ideas of what I don’t want.”
Autumn’s heart plummeted into the pit of her stomach at the familiar strident tones.
Rose met her gaze and made a face. They both heard Ellie say, “Sorry, my dear – I’m already helping a customer and we’ll probably be some time yet. Maybe you’d like to come back after lunch when I can give you my full attention?”
“That won’t work for me at all. This afternoon I’m picking out floral arrangements – I have a schedule to keep! Who’s here with you? Maybe they can come back.”
Autumn heard footsteps approaching and jumped down from the pedestal, rushing for the changing room, her feet tangling in the train of her gown. Rose grabbed her arm and kept her upright as Lacey burst through racks of wedding gowns and into view. She narrowed her eyes, face flooding with angry color at the sight of them.
“You! What are you doing here?”
“What do you think she’s doing?” Rose said, stepping in front of Autumn. “She’s choosing a wedding dress – duh!”
“For what? You aren’t getting married! Didn’t you hear a thing I said at the diner? Ethan’s broke and Carl’s buying his ranch for me, so you’ll have nothing if you marry that loser – nothing!”
“Why do you care so much if you think Ethan’s a loser?” Autumn said, peering around Rose. “Why don’t you just leave us alone?”
“Because…” Lacey sputtered. “Because you’re ruining everything! Everyone is supposed to be focused on my wedding – it’s going to be the event of the year! And instead all they’re talking about is you. Why don’t you go home to New York – you don’t belong here, and you definitely don’t belong with Ethan!”
“No,” Ellie said, puffing her grandmotherly bosom out like the prow a battleship. “You’re the one who doesn’t belong here, Lacey Turner. I don’t even recognize you anymore. When you were a little girl you were the sweetest thing. Now look what you’ve turned into. Only a truly wicked woman dumps the man she loves in the moment of his biggest defeat and then adds insult to injury by trying to turn others against him. Marriage is the joining of a man and a woman forever – for richer or poorer. That’s what wedding vows say. I doubt you’ve ever paid attention to the wording, though, since you’re much too busy calculating how much money it will net you. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, and I’m ashamed to have you in my store. I sell wedding gowns to brides here – I don’t cater to…to…fortune hunters.”