“Darling!” She was greeted with enthusiasm. Avery rose and gave the older woman a hug, wrapped in her signature scent of cherry blossoms. With her sophisticated silver hair in a tight chignon, the carved classic features of the former prima ballerina still held a jarring presence that hadn’t left with age. Vera’s birdlike frame was dressed in a tight black dress with a long strand of pearls looped twice around her swanlike neck. Her long fingers fluttered in the air, the flash of a fat diamond ring and matching tennis bracelet a symbol of her success. At seventy-eight years old, Vera had lived a life of glamour—a lead dancer at the Metropolitan who then retired to open up her own bridal shop by the beach. She was an inspiration to Avery, and a reminder that you were never too old to pivot and claim success on your own terms.
“I haven’t seen you in a while,” Avery said, smiling. “How did you manage to squeeze in a vacation in the middle of rush season?”
Vera’s laugh tinkled like scattered glass. “Darling, you never say no to Paris. Besides, I was able to steal a few special gowns that aren’t available in the States yet. Now, who are you here with today? Are we doing the full treatment?”
“Yes, she’s my best friend. Ally Ross. She’s coming with her brother.”
“How lovely! I do adore when a man is involved as long as he doesn’t act like an ass. I’ll get champagne set up in fitting room three. Ring me when she arrives and we’ll have a chat.”
A few minutes later, Ally walked in, features flushed with anticipation and the buzz of nerves every prospective bride experienced. Carter towered from behind, dwarfing the space. Avery noticed a few women stop and stare, his dynamic presence like a vibration in the room. As usual, his lips were tight in disapproval, like he’d already found a dozen reasons not to like her choice of bridal salons.
Trying not to roll her eyes, she went over to greet them. “Welcome to Vera’s! We’re all set for dressing room three, so I can lead you back. Or if you’d like, feel free to poke around and explore a bit before we settle.”
“It’s a bit small, don’t you think?” Carter asked.
“Small but mighty,” she chirped back, flashing her brightest smile. “Vera is a legend and can help us find the perfect dress.”
“How interesting,” he drawled. “What makes her a legend?”
She kept her tone cool and professional. “Besides being a famous prima ballerina who traveled all over the world, she learned how to sew from her grandmother, who worked at Dior. Vera has consulted with the top designers and is on call for the queen.”
Ally widened her eyes. “Of England?”
“Correct.” She shot Carter a look. “Hopefully that’s a solid-enough résumé.”
Ally clapped her hands. “It is for me! I can’t believe I’m the actual bride—I feel kind of giddy.”
“Good, I want you to be excited and enjoy yourself.” She whipped out her iPad and tapped to the screen of Ally’s preferred styles. “I already gave Vera an initial list of gowns to pull, especially strapless ones with an A-line skirt that you seem to like best. Let’s have a quick chat with her first, and then we’ll get started. I’ll go grab her.”
Ally and Carter wandered off to investigate. Vera was engaged deeply in conversation with a client, so Avery made the signal they were ready and began pulling a few dresses from the list that incorporated the features her friend liked. She hummed under her breath, flitting through the racks with an expertise that rivaled Vera’s attendants. She loved helping pull wedding dresses and assisted Vera with many of her brides.
Avery hung the dresses in the fitting room, and they gathered together for the initial chat. Vera poured champagne, and took a few minutes getting to know them both, her easy charm allowing Ally to relax while she sipped her bubbly.
“Avery picked out a few dresses to start us with based on the pictures you liked, but I want you to know bridal shopping can sometimes be frustrating. Many brides see something in a picture, but it doesn’t look like they imagined on them. Let’s use this time as a journey to explore and have fun figuring out what you like. We’ll find the right dress, but why rush through the experience feeling impatient and desperate?”
“I know we don’t have the normal time schedule, though,” Ally said. “Will that cut out a lot of my options?”
“I’ll make sure to only show you dresses that don’t have to be special ordered. Your size is an asset since it’s common to find off the rack and easily alter. Now, is there anything you don’t like in a wedding dress?”
Ally wrinkled her nose. “Nothing tight or formfitting. No mermaid. Nothing too flashy or too—”
“Weird,” Carter finished. “I’ve seen some of those wedding shows on TLC. Sometimes more isn’t a good thing.”
Vera laughed. “Understood. Now, let’s whisk your brother off to the waiting area and get started. Avery, why don’t you keep Mr. Ross company?”
“Of course.” She grabbed the whole bottle of champagne and led him out while she let Vera do her job.
The waiting room held pristine white chairs, a velvet couch with raspberry throw pillows, and plush vanilla carpet. The chandelier dripped elegant crystals and pearls. The full-length mirrors were gilded with silver scrolling. The entire room was elegant and classy.
Carter hooked his ankle over his knee, glass held gracefully between his long fingers. Irritation bristled. Why was he dressed like he had a job interview? Today, it was a navy-blue suit with a pink tie that should have looked ridiculous but instead was a tiny bit hot. His polished wing-tipped shoes exposed no imperfections under the gleaming light.
“Don’t you own a pair of shorts?”
He blinked, then slowly swiveled his head around. His gaze flicked over her body in pure dismissal. “Yes.”
She waited for more, but he remained silent, just sipping his champagne. “Then why are you wearing a suit on vacation?”
“Because I’m not on vacation yet. I’m still working on a project. Therefore, I’m technically required to dress for my job.”
Her mouth dropped open. “That’s ridiculous. You’re in a different state, and no one from the office is going to see you. Why wouldn’t you dress comfortably?”
He looked at her like she’d asked a stupid question. “I am comfortable.”
“Why am I not surprised?” she muttered under her breath. Did he even know how to kick back and relax? Tamping down her frustration, she resolved to try and get along with him. He was her friend’s ManOH, and she knew the next three months would be easier if they formed a truce. “Are you still doing computer stuff?”
“What exactly is your job?”
“I’m a hacker.”
“Isn’t that illegal?”
“Not if you work for the good guys. I’m termed an ethical hacker. I do jobs for the government to stop bad people from infiltrating our economy and computer systems.”
Hmm, that was actually interesting. She’d figured he did quality assurance or something similarly yawn-worthy. “Did you want to make a difference? Is that why you got into that field of work?”
The judging gaze was back. “No, Avery. I needed to make a lot of money and have the ability to be mobile. It fit my needs.” End of subject. He returned his attention to his glass, swirling the bubbly liquid around like it held all the answers.
Oh, how she despised the way he addressed her, like she was completely beneath him. She was about to make a cutting remark when Ally appeared in her first dress and stepped up on the platform.
“What do you think?” she asked, facing them and smoothing her palms down the thick satin skirt. It was a stunning dress. A strapless shirred bodice flared gently out to a full skirt with a simple train. The lines were beautifully cut, and it screamed classic elegance.
“It’s gorgeous on you,” Avery said. “Do you like it?”
“I love it. Carter?”
Those stormy eyes were hooded. “It’s nice.”
Avery gritted her teeth. If Carter got in his sister’s head to make her doubt her decisions, she’d kill him.
Vera launched into some of the aspects of the dress, touching on the designer but allowing Ally to come to her own conclusion.
She turned around a few times. “I really love it, but I’d like to see more.”
“Of course,” Avery said. “That’s the best way to figure out your favorite. Try on as many as possible.”
Ally gathered the full skirt and disappeared back into the dressing room with Vera.
Avery whirled on her heel. “‘It’s nice’?” she growled. “That’s the reaction you give your sister when you see her in a wedding dress for the first time?”
He shrugged. “It was nice. Would you prefer I whip out my internal thesaurus to dazzle you both with my vocabulary?”
She swallowed a groan. “No, but a little enthusiasm is required as her support system. I know you don’t have many emotions, but here’s a bit of advice from the wedding planner: fake it.”