Was it a bad omen when you couldn’t zip up your wedding dress? Erin Merritt looked over her shoulder at her reflection in the full-length mirror hanging on her bedroom door and sighed. A good two inches of skin peeked out between the zipper teeth, taunting, Neener, neener, neener. How had this happened in just a few weeks?
Don’t play dumb, scolded her inner mother. You know how this happened. And then her inner mother gave her a little pat on the shoulder. But it’s understandable. You’ve been under a lot of stress.
She had. Her job as an event planner was stressful enough. But in addition to being responsible for making all those fund-raisers and community festivals in nearby Seattle smashing successes, she’d been working on a shoestring for the most important event of her life, her wedding.
If Mom were still alive it wouldn’t have been a shoestring. Mom always said, “What’s money when you’re making memories? Memories are priceless.” Especially wedding memories, and that was why Erin wanted a storybook wedding.
But Adam Hawthorne, her Prince Charming, kept trying to mess up the story at every turn. “We’re going to have some tight years at first. I don’t want to rack up any more debt than we have to,” he was always saying.
If she followed all Adam’s cheapo suggestions they sure wouldn’t have any debt. They wouldn’t have any wedding, either. His mom had offered to spring for the cake, so there had been no need to argue over that. But they’d argued about everything else, from the flowers (“You don’t need to budget so much for flowers, babe. My cousin could do them for us—she’s big into gardening.”) to the location (“Let’s get married in your aunt’s backyard.”). Nice of him to volunteer her aunt, who had already done so much for her. Adam had no problem with volunteering people to do things for them to save them money. Erin, on the other hand, was reluctant to draft free labor. It was both tacky and dangerous. Just because someone liked to arrange flowers or take pictures, that didn’t mean the person was any good at it.
Okay, she got that he didn’t want her to spend fifty thousand dollars on a wedding, but he was carrying this broke med-school-student thing way too far, especially since he wasn’t broke and his grandfather was taking care of his medical school bills. (It paid to be an only child with generous grandparents.) Anyway, it was their wedding, for crying out loud, and she was footing the bill for most of it.
Adam’s argument to that was that he was going to get her maxed-out credit card bills right along with her. So what? She’d be the one paying them off. Anyway, how many times did a girl get married?
Only once, Mom used to say, and then a woman got smart. But Erin didn’t want to get smart. She wanted to marry Adam. Wait a minute. That hadn’t quite sounded right.
“We can put the money we save toward a down payment on a house,” Adam kept saying. “You don’t need a big party. Let’s be smart about this.”
Depressed, she slipped out of the gown, returned it to its garment bag, and hung it back in her closet. She could just imagine what Adam would say if he found out she’d outgrown the wedding gown he thought she’d spent way too much on.
Why had she been so dumb as to come home from work and try the thing on anyway? Oh, yeah, to cheer herself up after her crappy day. Well, cheers.
“You’ve got to quit stressing,” Adam was always saying. Funny, considering he was one of her biggest stressors.
Erin sighed. Okay, everyone had their faults, and Adam’s cheapness wasn’t really a fault. He just didn’t get how this all worked. Weddings cost money. And you had to plan ahead, far ahead. The Heart Lake Lodge was booked a year in advance, sometimes two. And she much preferred to use that idyllic location rather than make her aunt go crazy trying to get her house ready for a wedding. She could afford to pay her way. She didn’t have to use people.
Adam didn’t know it yet, but Erin had already reserved the lodge. Her friend Bev, who worked there, had told her there’d been a cancellation. Thank God for connections. Bev had ignored the waiting list and put their name on the event calendar. And when the time was right, Erin would tell him all about it and explain how lucky they were, and then he’d be as excited about it as she was.
It was mid-January now. The wedding was in June. Hopefully, the time for telling Adam would be right soon.
Erin suddenly felt a need for . . . something. She found it fifteen minutes later at the Safeway in the chips aisle. There was nothing like chips and salsa to make a girl feel better. Chips, salsa, and a margarita, she decided, and picked up some drink mix, too, to go with the half-full bottle of tequila she had stashed at the back of the cupboard.
Dan Rockwell was working the express checkout tonight. He smiled at her, then eyed her grocery items. “Party, huh?”
“Not really,” she replied. She should have picked a different register. Then she wouldn’t have had her brother’s old buddy assessing her food purchases.
“Doctor McDoodoo must be coming over.”
“That’s McDreamy,” she corrected him. “Like in Grey’s Anatomy.” If he was going to eavesdrop on private conversations people had every time they waited in line he should at least get the information right.
He nodded, pretending to be impressed. “Oh, yeah. I forgot.”
Erin gave him a look that told him exactly what she thought of his faulty memory. The obnoxious crack was hardly surprising, though. Average-looking men like Dan always hated Adam Hawthorne because he was so incredibly gorgeous. With his ice-blue eyes and that square chin, those broad shoulders and perfectly sculpted abs (not to mention the rest of him), Adam could have been a movie star.
She supposed Dan could have been a movie star, too, a sidekick kind of movie star—the average-looking guy with the slightly crooked nose who did dumb stuff and said funny things and was always there for the hero, but never cool enough to be the hero.
Dan was a dork. He’d been a dork ever since she’d known him. Well, okay, there was that time when she was in seventh grade and he was in ninth that she thought he was really fabulous and had dreamed about his brown eyes and cute smile. And when a bunch of them were playing spin the bottle down in the basement at one of her brother Brett’s dumb parties and Dan kissed her, it had given her a zing from her training bra to her toes. That zing turned to tingling mortification when he made a face afterward and said, “Yuck, I’m a pervert. I kissed a kid.” She’d show him, she thought. He’d be sorry when she was older and really, really cool.
Then she got to high school and became a cheerleader, a cute blond cheerleader. Really, really cool. And it was payback time, payback for the times he’d teased her about needing to start shaving her legs, about that stubborn zit that suddenly appeared on her chin and kept appearing ever after every month like clockwork, about anything and everything that was none of his business. She got so cool she could freeze him with a look. Pretty soon his teasing became less confident and then it dried up, and when he came over to see Brett, he just mumbled, “Hi, Erin,” and scooted off down the hall to Brett’s room or out to the driveway to shoot hoops.
He never kissed her again until another one of her brother’s parties in the basement. Brett had managed to become halfway cool, playing on the football team, but for some unknown reason he still stayed friends with Dan. That night, after a few illegal beers, Dan got her in a lip lock. She was no longer in training bras, but she had the same reaction. Scared by her lack of taste, she’d slapped him and informed him he was a dork (just in case he hadn’t figured it out). And that was the last time he ever came near her. Which, perversely, pissed her off even more.
After high school everyone drifted apart and moved away and she only saw him when the holidays pulled them all home. And that was about as much as she cared to see of him. After all, who needed to see someone on a regular basis who had known you since you were a kid and could remind you of all the dumb things you’d done?
Now Dan had wound up living back in Heart Lake this year, like her. Only she wasn’t staying. She was only here because Aunt Mellie was letting Erin stay in her rental house for next to nothing so she could save for the wedding. Once she was married she’d be living in Seattle.
Dan would be here forever, as frozen in time as the TV dinners in the freezer cases he stocked, destined to check groceries for the rest of his natural-born days.
She, on the other hand, planned to make a big splash in the world of event planning and own her own company ten years from now. And that was why Adam was a perfect match. He was going places, too. And really, except for his obsession over the cost of the wedding (which he was just going to have to get over), he was perfect. Women fell all over themselves to get him to talk to them, but he only had eyes (ice blue) for her. He was going to be rich and successful. They’d live in a beautiful house, have beautiful children (when the time was right), and take romantic vacations together. Life with Adam would be successful and secure. Perfect.
“You could get fat eating all those chips by yourself,” Dan teased, giving Erin a severe yank back into the moment at hand.
Her eyes popped open wide. Fat? Yes, she’d gone up two sizes in the last six months, but . . . oh, God. It was really showing if grocery checkers were feeling the need to make comments. “Why did you say that?”
Dan’s brow bunched in confusion. “Say what?”
“What you just said. About getting fat.”
He shrugged. “No reason. I was just goofing around.”
Being a dork as usual. Where along the way to adulthood had he decided he could start teasing her again? She’d obviously been too nice to him at Christmas. “Do I look fat?” she demanded.
He shook his head. “No, no. You look fine. I was just joking. Really.”
Erin sliced her debit card through the slot on the little box at the checkout. “You should never joke about fat with a woman.”
“Even when she isn’t?”
“Even when . . . ever,” Erin finished with a snap.
“Okay. Sorry. Chill.”
“I don’t need to chill. I just need to . . . not talk to you.” She signed her name on the screen, then grabbed the receipt from him and marched out the door. As soon as she got in her car she ripped open the chip bag, filling her little VW Bug with the smell of deep-fried cornmeal. She pulled one out and bit down on it violently. Dan Rockwell was a dork.
She drove home, chomping on chips all the way. And all the way her inner mother scolded, This is no way to fit into your dress.
“I know,” she agreed. “What is wrong with me?”
Her inner mother decided it was time to keep her mouth shut and said nothing.
Erin felt the sting from a surprise attack of tears. “Oh, Mom, I miss you so much.” For a moment she considered going over to Aunt Mellie’s house on the lake for some Mom-like comfort, but then remembered that this was dance lesson night. Aunt Mellie and Uncle Jake would be over at the Heart Lake Community Hall stepping on each other’s feet.
So Erin went home and made herself a margarita to go with the chips and salsa. And called her friend Angela. She didn’t bother with small talk or politely asking if Angela was busy. That would be a dumb question anyway. With two kids under the age of six Angela was always busy. Instead, Erin got right to the point. “My wedding gown doesn’t fit,” she wailed.
The words were barely out when she realized she’d heard more than Angela’s voice on the other end of the line a minute ago. She’d heard a key in her front door lock. She looked over her shoulder and there stood Adam, wearing his old J. Crew jacket, the wool scarf and leather gloves she gave him for Christmas, and a stunned expression.
Angela Baker stared at her phone receiver. “What do you mean you’ve got to go? You just called.”
“Adam just came in.”
“Did he hear what you said?” If he did, how awful!
Angela wished she could think of some words of wisdom for her friend, but her mind was a complete blank. “Crud.”
“Yep. I’ll talk to you later,” Erin said, and hung up.
Angela set the cordless on the end table, then restarted the Oprah show that she’d recorded and burrowed deeper under her afghan. Poor Erin. Adam would probably say something dumb and insensitive and then they’d get in a fight. If you asked Angela, Adam Hawthorne was what Dr. Phil called a nightmare groom. Here Erin was, trying to plan her big day, and all Adam did was pour cold water on everything she wanted to do. Saving money was one thing, but his ideas were off-the-charts bad. And selfish. Bastardo.
“That was quick.”
She looked up to see her husband, Brad, leaning against the doorjamb between the living room and front hall. He’d changed out of his work clothes earlier and was clad in jeans and a sweater, the sleeves pushed up to accommodate postdinner bathtub patrol.
He looked like a Brad, with his fair skin and sandy hair—a contrast to her darker, Italian coloring. They had made one hot couple when they got married. Fortunately, she hadn’t had to worry about her wedding dress fitting.
But that was a long time ago and now she was only hot from the neck up. And sometimes that wasn’t so good, either. It was scary how quickly a woman could put on weight once she quit work and decided to stay at home with the kids.
“So, who kept you on the phone for only five minutes? Can we clone her?”
“It was Erin. Adam came over so she had to go.”
“Yeah, well, he should enjoy that kind of attention while it lasts,” Brad cracked.
“Very funny.” Angela tapped her chin thoughtfully. “I’m not sure Adam is the right man for Erin. I just can’t picture them together in the long run.”
“They’ll work it out. Hey, speaking of pictures, I almost forgot,” he said. He opened the hall coat closet, then fished around in his coat pocket and came up with a handful of snapshots.
Hmmm. Where had he gotten those? They had their own printer here at home.
He sauntered over and joined her on the couch. It was a big, deep-cushioned leather number and it had cost a pretty penny, but Brad didn’t care. He liked nice things. He didn’t make a fortune working at First National’s loan center in the city, but he never complained when she spent money. Unlike some people. Poor, poor Erin.
“By the way, the girls are all washed, but I told them they could play in the tub for five more minutes. They’re soap-chalking everything.”
“No big deal. It washes off,” said Angela, reaching for the mystery pictures.
“Rachel made some copies of the shots she took at the office Christmas party.”
Rachel. Angela’s smile suddenly felt stiff.
“Ha! Look at that one of Jack trying to do the limbo,” Brad said, looking over Angela’s shoulder. “She’s threatening to use it to extort money out of him.”
I wouldn’t put it past her. Angela began to look through the pictures. It was mostly people she didn’t know and didn’t care about. She stopped when she came to one of herself and a lithe redhead. Rachel, her husband’s assistant. Her husband’s single assistant. Single and looking assistant. Single and looking-to-wreck-a-home assistant.
Angela had seen women like this on Oprah. They had no heart, no conscience, no fat.
She studied the block with the dark-haired head standing next to Rachel. Herself. In her black slacks and one-size-covers-all black sequined top, she looked big, huge, mammoth, ready to be recycled, turned in for someone hotter. Like the bitch standing next to her.
Anger started simmering inside Angela. Rachel had given this to Brad on purpose, so he could compare the two of them side by side. It wasn’t hard to see who was lacking. What a horrible, depressing shot!
“I look awful,” she said.
Brad took the picture and looked at it. “No you don’t. I like you in black.”
Angela frowned. “That woman is a puttana.”
Brad raised an eyebrow. “I see you learned another new word in Italian. Do I even want to know what it means?”
“I bet you can guess.”
She reached for the picture but he held it away, saying, “Oh, no. You’ll probably tear it up.”
She tried to reach across him and grab it. “It needs to be torn up.”
“If you keep ripping up pictures you don’t like of yourself pretty soon we won’t have any in our albums.” He grinned. “But then you won’t spend a fortune on scrapbooking stuff, so maybe I should let you.”
She stuck her tongue out at him.
“Daddy, Mandy just poohed in the tub,” called their older daughter, Gabriella.
Brad grimaced and made a pretense of starting to get up.
Angela put a hand on his arm. “I’ll take care of it.”
He looked relieved. “Works for me.”
She wasn’t being that noble, really. She’d rather deal with the pooh in the tub than the pooh in the picture. She should never have let herself get so fat. The darned pounds had sneaked up on her one at a time, first hiding on her bottom and then spreading out to expand first an inch here and then an inch there. If she didn’t do something about it soon she’d lose Brad to that redheaded home wrecker.
She fished the girls out of the tub and got them into their jammies, then sent them downstairs to play with Daddy while she cleaned up the mess. If only she could pull herself together as easily!
Brad had wanted her to see that picture, wanted her to see what she’d become. The other pictures were just cover. That one was where the real message lay. And it had come through loud and clear. She was a blob, a big, unsexy blob.
They got the girls to bed, and then watched some TV. Well, Brad watched. Angela only pretended to watch while she thought about how she’d let herself go. After the news they went up to bed themselves. She scrambled into her sleep tee while Brad was in the master bathroom brushing his teeth. She looked down at the thing in disgust. Rachel probably wore Victoria’s Secret nightgowns to bed. Or maybe she slept in the nude.
Angela was safely hidden behind fabric when Brad came out of the bathroom, ready for bed in his boxers and T-shirt. He was still in great shape, not an ounce of fat on him. He slipped in between the covers. “Hey, baberino, why don’t you lose that thing?” he suggested, nodding at her tee.
“It is getting kind of ratty.” She needed to go shopping, get something new and sexy. But what was the point? She wouldn’t look sexy in it.
He grinned. “No, I mean lose it now.”
His words covered her smarting self-esteem like salve. She smiled at him. He still loved her. She was being silly.
She joined him in bed, losing the tee once she was under the covers. She never used to be so bashful.
He didn’t seem to mind. He found her under there just fine.
But later, long after he was snoring happily, she lay in bed and thought about that picture. If she and Rachel had been cars, Rachel would have been a Maserati while she would have been an old, old minivan. What man would want a dumpy, old minivan when he could have a Maserati? Never mind that he’d had children with the minivan, that he still drove the minivan. He’d want the Maserati.
Next she got to thinking about Rachel, Brad’s assistant, who worked late whenever he worked late. He’d stayed to work late just last week.
That didn’t mean anything, she assured herself. Brad was a good man. He wouldn’t cheat on her. Still, how many good men, surrounded by temptation every day, finally lost the will to fight? Just like a woman surrounded all through the holidays by cookies and chocolate, who finally couldn’t take it anymore and dove mouth first into the Hershey’s chocolate mint Kisses, a man could probably only go so long. Brad was human, after all. Everyone had an Achilles’ heel. Was Rachel Brad’s? Again, Angela thought of that picture.
Driven by a tsunami of panic, she slipped out of bed and went downstairs to the laundry room where she started digging through the bag for the dry cleaners, pulling out all his shirts. She sniffed each one and examined the collar for lipstick. She found nothing, but that didn’t mean anything, really, just that things hadn’t progressed too far yet. Brad and Rachel were still in the attraction stage, still flirting. She’d lean in close to him when putting something on his desk for him to sign. He’d sneak peeks down her blouse. Soon he’d be working late several nights a week. Soon the traces of lipstick would start showing up on his shirt collar. He wouldn’t be able to help himself.
Then Angela would become like those poor, pitiful women who went on Oprah and insisted, “I had no idea my husband was having an affair.”
No, she wouldn’t be like them, because she’d have had an idea. And she knew right now that if she didn’t do something drastic her husband was going to go Maserati hunting.
Okay, so she’d turn thirty in March, but she still had plenty of hum in her engine. She just needed a better chassis. And she needed to get one fast. Suddenly, she remembered the place on Oprah’s Web site where a woman who wanted a new chassis could find the motivation and encouragement to get one. She padded into their little home office and got on the computer. Then she went to Oprah’s Web site, drilling her acrylic nails on the desk as she searched for what she wanted. There it was, all the help and inspiration a girl could ask for. Good.
Rachel was going to end up on Oprah or Dr. Phil one day, no doubt about it. But Angela wasn’t going to be there with her. She was going to go to booty camp and get hot.
Copyright © 2008 by Sheila Roberts. All rights reserved.