Sarah stood by the lych-gate and surveyed the perfection of the summer morning. It was June and the sun was shining with the promise of a perfect day. The church was an early English gem, surrounded by closely mown, dew-spangled grass, ancient lichen-covered gravestones and clipped yews. She’d already seen Sukie, the florist, who’d been there since dawn, and now some of her anxiety left her. Two years of work had come to fruition. It was all going to be all right.
Then she screamed as someone appeared from behind a tombstone. ‘Agh! Hugo! You brute! You gave me such a fright!’ As her beating heart caught up with her brain and she realised she wasn’t being attacked, by a stranger at least, she went on: ‘You had me thinking it was Halloween for a moment there.’
Hugo, tall, blond and rumpled, always gave Sarah the impression that he’d just got out of bed – and not his own.
‘Sarah, you’re so sweet, I should give you up for Lent,’ he drawled in reply.
Sarah smiled. Hugo was one of the best photographers she dealt with and they always exchanged sallies and insults, but she had deliberately never got to know him as a friend – she felt it was more sensible to keep the relationship strictly professional. ‘We both seem to have got our seasons mixed up.’
‘As long as we’ve got the day right. Perfect for it, huh?’
Sarah nodded. ‘And you’ll love the bride. She’s really beautiful.’
‘Darling. Two little sweeties – we won’t call them angels until we know how they behave – and one big one to keep them in order. Heavenly dresses.’
‘Second families to worry about? Bride and groom’s parents still married to each other and pitching up?’
‘Yup. Marriage does work for some people, apparently.’ She smiled again slightly, pretending she was joking.
Hugo rumbled his amusement. ‘Don’t you believe in “happy ever after” then?’
‘Not very often. Which is why I think it’s important that the wedding is as wonderful as it can possibly be.’ She gestured to the scene of perfection before them. ‘It might be the only happy memory.’
Hugo inspected the dew that had gathered on his perfect shiny shoe. ‘Honestly, Sarah, if the people who pay you to organise all this knew how you feel . . .’
‘They don’t need to know about my feelings, only about my ability to find the perfect venue and a personable photographer who makes everyone look fabulous.’
He chuckled again, taking the hint that she needed to get on, along with the compliment. ‘So, anything I need to know?’
Sarah considered. ‘I don’t think you should have any trouble. The bride’s mother has put an awful lot of energy into this and is very anxious that nothing happens to spoil that, but she’s got a great hat. I’m sure she’ll succumb to your ready charm.’
Sarah could never understand why she was the only one who realised Hugo’s ready charm was part of his stock-in-trade as a photographer, but she admitted that, for a wedding planner, she did have more than the usual amount of cynicism. And for good reason: she hadn’t been in the business more than a couple of years and already two of the perfect weddings she had organised had broken up, one barely eight months after the happy pair drove off in a cloud of dried delphinium petals. Five of the six girls from her school who had got married the moment they hit twenty-five had since separated. There was also her sister’s debacle of a marriage, not to mention (and Sarah never did) her own heartbreak, recovered from but not forgotten. No, in Sarah’s eyes, happy-ever-after was the rare exception that proved the rule.
‘Well, I’ll just prowl around a bit more,’ said Hugo, unaware of Sarah’s thoughts. ‘Find somewhere really picturesque to take the less formal shots.’
‘Try to avoid grass stains on the dresses, if you can. Please! I always get complaints.’
He tipped his head and closed his already heavy-lidded eyes, indicating that while he heard her request, he wasn’t necessarily going to concede to it.
‘It’s all right for you, no one ever moans to you!’
‘Because I’m the best,’ he said simply.
And because he was, and they both knew it, she just said, ‘I’d better get back to the hotel to make sure everyone’s there who should be, and not too many people who shouldn’t.’ She frowned. ‘I’m still not convinced it wouldn’t have been better to have the reception at the bride’s home – it’s fabulous, but they decided it was less upheaval to have it at a hotel. It is a very good hotel, of course. But the money!’ She raised her hands in a gesture of amazement. ‘Now, I must get on.’
She turned away, aware of his sleepy gaze on her back. She hoped he wouldn’t get the bridesmaids to lean against lichen-covered gravestones and thus ruin their dresses for ever, but accepted that for him getting the right shot was vital and nothing much else came into consideration. She was good at managing people and she usually got what she wanted out of them, but she was never convinced that Hugo took any notice of her at all.
As she walked back to her car she wondered if Ashlyn was the sort of bride who would encourage people to open the champagne before the wedding and turn what should be a morning of solid preparation into an extension of the hen party. But her mother would probably put a stop to anything like that. A glass for everyone during the final hair and make-up session was fine, but only one!
She arrived at the hotel to a diorama of potential tragedy. Everyone was more or less static when they should have been calmly getting on with dressing the bride.
Instead, Ashlyn was sitting at the dressing table in a chemise, stockings and French knickers, with her mobile phone in her hand, tears of rage adding the wrong sort of sparkle to her eyes. Elsa, the dressmaker, waiting to help her into the dress now hanging on the back of the door, stood awkwardly inspecting her nails and picking bits of fluff off her black trousers.
Bron, in charge of hair and make-up, had also stepped back. Ashlyn’s long and slippery tresses were half up, half down, and her frantic texting had threatened her French manicure. The perfect make-up already needed reapplying.
‘What’s happened?’ demanded Sarah, instantly aware she was witnessing an unfolding calamity.
There was a moment’s tense silence and then the bride answered: ‘My fucking bridesmaid has decided not to come!’
Shock settled round the room like dust after an explosion. Sarah had never heard Ashlyn use language like that before. A moment’s reflection made her feel it was justified.
‘Oh no,’ said Sarah, her eyes shut, wondering how on earth two enchanting three-year-olds could possibly manage without an accompanying adult bridesmaid.
‘Oh yes.’ Ashlyn bit out the words between her newly whitened teeth. ‘She’s decided that a weekend away with her new boyfriend would be more fun than attending her best friend’s wedding!’
‘That’s so out of order,’ murmured Bron, wondering when she could carry on doing the bride’s hair.
‘And to think I paid for that bitch’s weekend at Barnstable Spa, which is not exactly cheap!’ Ashlyn went on. ‘And Mummy paid for her dress – another small fortune.’ Elsa, who’d also made the bridesmaid’s outfit, winced. ‘Well, at least I can change her disgusting wedding present for something decent!’
Sensing that the bride was beginning to move on from this disaster, Bron stepped forward with her comb and pins, preparing to carry on defying gravity with Ashlyn’s water-smooth hair. Elsa’s shoulders relaxed and Sarah said, ‘We can manage perfectly well without her. Poppy should be able to take your bouquet from you and we can ask your sister-in-law to take it from her. Don’t worry.’
Ashlyn gave a huge sigh. ‘I should have known not to trust her. She sat on my guinea pig when we were little and I’ve never forgiven her.’
There was a tiny pause, showing respect for the dead guinea pig, and then Bron said bravely, ‘OK, if I can just get back to doing your hair. We haven’t got all day.’
As Bron laughed, a little awkwardly, Sarah wondered if there was a bit of puffiness around her eyes this morning, or if she’d imagined it. She didn’t know Bron very well, perhaps she always looked like that.
Elsa stopped picking at her trousers and seemed calm, waiting for the moment when her dressmaking skills might be needed. Ashlyn’s mother had insisted that she attended, principally so she could make final adjustments to the chief bridesmaid’s dress, as she’d missed her final fitting. Most probably she would only be required to hook up Ashlyn’s dress at the back and break it to the bride that the dress would look better if it wasn’t worn over the French knickers she’d had such fun buying, but over nothing at all. She had a thong in her bag if Ashlyn preferred that option.
Then the door opened and the bride’s mother walked in. ‘Everything all right, darling?’
There was a moment’s silence. No one wanted to be the messenger that turned the bride’s mother’s big day into a disaster. Then Ashlyn bit the bullet. ‘Fulvia’s backed out. She’s going to Paris with her boyfriend instead.’
Mrs Lennox-Featherstone screamed, not loudly, but loud enough to alarm her husband who called anxiously through the door.
‘Is everything all right in there?’
‘No it is not!’ hissed his wife. ‘That – trollop – whom we’ve taken with us skiing, for God’s sake, has backed out!’
Sarah realised this was probably the moment when she really earned her money as a wedding planner and coordinator. ‘It’s all right, Mrs Lennox-Featherstone, we can manage perfectly well without her.’
‘I’ve paid for that dress,’ said her client’s mother. ‘Over two thousand pounds – and it’s not spending the wedding in a plastic bag!’
Elsa jumped. It was not her fault the dress was not going to be worn or that the enormous amount of hand-beading had taken her so long to do – it was time-consuming. But she couldn’t throw off her feelings of guilt.
‘That’s all right,’ said Ashlyn, calm now her mother was having conniptions, ‘Elsa can wear it. She and Fulvia are the same size and, unlike Fulvia, she’s been a real friend.’
Elsa gasped loudly. ‘Ashlyn, I—’
‘Yes you have,’ persisted Ashlyn, as if it was their friendship that Elsa had been about to deny. ‘You sorted me out when Bobby and I had that huge row and we’ve had such fun together! That lovely day looking at fabric. And you haven’t forgotten that time at—’
‘Stand up and let me look at you,’ snapped Mrs Lennox-Featherstone, obviously feeling there wasn’t time for reminiscing just now. ‘Why do you persist in wearing black? It’s absolutely the wrong colour for you. Drains you. Well, put on the dress and let’s see what you look like. It’s all right, Donald,’ she called through the door. ‘You can go away now. It’s all going to be fine.’
‘Um, I can’t wear the dress,’ said Elsa.
‘Why not? We know it fits,’ said Ashlyn’s mother.
‘Because I’d feel a fraud, not being Ashlyn’s real brides-maid,’ said Elsa, sending Sarah a look that told her she needed help.
‘It might be a bit awkward with – er – Fulvia’s parents coming to the wedding.’ Sarah had already wondered if she could leave them seated so near the top table and decided that she had to.
‘I don’t suppose they know about their little tart’s defection,’ snapped Mrs Lennox-Featherstone. ‘Although they should have guessed, sending her to that awful school. None of the pupils leaves without an A level in bitchiness.’
‘OK,’ said Sarah, taking charge. ‘It is a shame that Fulvia has backed out but, as I say, we don’t really need her.’
‘Oh yes we do,’ said Ashlyn and her mother simultaneously.
‘Not only did the dress cost a fortune,’ went on Mrs Lennox-Featherstone, ‘but the photographs will be unbalanced without a big bridesmaid.’
‘Hugo is an excellent photographer,’ said Sarah. ‘I can assure you that—’
‘I want Elsa,’ said Ashlyn, like a child on the verge of a tantrum. ‘I like her a lot more than fu—’ She glanced at her mother and went on to use her ex-best-friend’s name without the alliterative expletive. ‘Fulvia.’
‘So you simply must be her bridesmaid, dear,’ said Mrs Lennox-Featherstone. ‘What the bride wants, she must have.’ She gave a tight smile and glanced at her daughter.
‘I can’t!’ persisted Elsa, feeling more and more uncomfortable.
‘You don’t want to spoil Ashlyn’s big day by being selfish, do you?’
‘Of course not,’ said Elsa. ‘But being a bridesmaid is a really big thing. It should be someone who’s known Ashlyn all her life not someone she’s only met—’
‘I’ve known you nearly two years,’ said Ashlyn. ‘I like you – and you haven’t killed any of my pets!’
Elsa tried to laugh at this attempt at lightheartedness. ‘No, but . . .’
‘Please!’ said Ashlyn. ‘I really want you to.’
‘I can’t,’ said Elsa, finding some determination at last.
‘Why not?’ demanded Ashlyn’s mother, who wouldn’t take no for an answer without a very good explanation.
‘Seriously, I can’t!’
‘But why not?’ demanded Ashlyn, who took after her mother and was curious as well as demanding.
‘My armpits!’ she said desperately and with all the firmness she could muster – given the word she was being firm with.
‘What about your armpits?’ said Ashlyn, a frown disturbing her perfectly shaped eyebrows.
‘I haven’t shaved them. At least, not for a few days . . .’ Elsa faltered, anxiously regarding the women who were all looking back at her, appearing to condemn her for slovenly, unhygienic habits.
‘Not a problem,’ said Bron smoothly, having kept out of the fraught discussion until now. ‘I have disposable razors in my kit.’
Mrs Lennox-Featherstone, who, like the others, had perched on the edge of the double bed, stood up and came across to Elsa. ‘I realise that as a family we’re asking an awful lot of you, but this is Ashlyn’s special day; we’ve been preparing for over two years. Please help us out.’
Elsa regarded her client. She knew as well as anyone how long this wedding had been in preparation as she had been thinking about, designing and eventually making the dresses for it. It had been her first really big contract and she’d put into it not only the expected blood, sweat and tears, but a good chunk of her soul too.
‘We would all be so grateful.’ The older woman put her hand on Elsa’s shoulder, and Elsa realised she’d never seen her vulnerable before. Bullying, Elsa might have stood up to, but not this heartfelt plea.
‘OK,’ she said, really wishing she could find it in herself to refuse, but conceding that she was finally beaten. ‘On the condition that Ashlyn doesn’t wear those knickers,’ she added. That was something she wouldn’t budge on.
‘What’s wrong with my knickers?’ said Ashlyn indignantly. ‘They’re silk chiffon and Bobby’s going to love them!’
‘I’m sure he is, but they’ll show through your dress where it glides over your thighs. It’ll spoil the line. I’ve got a thong if you don’t want to go knickerless.’
Distracted from Elsa for a moment, Ashlyn’s mother turned to her daughter. ‘Darling, I really do think you’d better wear something. You can’t go to church without pants on.’
‘Whatever,’ said Ashlyn, ‘as long as Elsa agrees to be my bridesmaid.’
Sarah, aware the room seemed very crowded all of a sudden, took charge once more. ‘Elsa, you go to the bathroom and have a shower and a shave – sorry, that sounds a bit weird! Mrs Lennox-Featherstone, you go to your room and get dressed. Bron will want to do your hair soon. And Ashlyn, you sit still so Bron can finish yours and then she’ll touch up your make-up.’
‘Let’s open a bottle of champagne,’ said Ashlyn when her mother had left the room and Elsa had been sent to the bathroom with a razor and an exfoliating scrub. ‘I put a couple of bottles in the mini-bar fridge.’
Sarah really wanted to say no. She knew it was fatal for people to start losing control at this stage but she was weakened by events. She wouldn’t have any herself but she really appreciated how welcome it would be to the others. ‘OK then, if you must.’
‘Can you open it for us then, Sarah?’ The bride fluttered her eyelashes just a little and Sarah sighed.
‘Get the glasses, Bron, there’s a dear,’ she said.
Everyone had a glass, and Sarah realised it had been a good idea after all. Just seeing the champagne pour creamily into the flutes had a calming effect.