They were the ugliest bridesmaid dresses Heather Montgomery had ever seen, and she'd seen her share of them. When you had a family that could fill Texas Stadium, somebody was always getting married, and it was family law that cousins asked cousins to be bridesmaids, even if it meant blood relatives had to stand in line behind five of the bride's sorority sisters.
This time around it was Heather's cousin Regina tying the knot, and she'd chosen these dresses for one reason only: her high‑priced wedding planner had convinced her they were the height of fashion. To Heather they simply looked ridiculous.
"Regina!" squealed Bridesmaid Number One, as she fanned out the skirt of one of the six petticoated, pouffy-sleeved, waist‑hugging creations. "They're fabulous!"
Two and Three voiced similar opinions, while Four and Five stroked the satin reverently, making breathy little noises of approval. Heather had given up trying to remember five names all ending in "i"--Cami, Taci, Tami, whatever‑‑and which blond woman belonged to each one. In the end, she'd simply assigned them numbers according to hair length.
In the wake of all the oohs and ahhs, Heather traded furtive eye‑rolls with her mother. Barbara Montgomery had come along on this dress‑fitting excursion, even though she didn't particularly like her sister or her niece. She was there because family weddings always stirred things up, and if she stayed in the thick of things she was sure to be around when the pandemonium began. The whole family thrived on chaos in a way that boggled Heather's mind. Given her own preference for a calm, tidy, organized life, sometimes she wondered if the stork had taken a wrong turn twenty-nine years ago and dumped her down the wrong chimney.
"Oh, yes," Barbara said. "The dresses are simply adorable. Don't you think they're adorable, Heather?"
"Yes," she said, sounding almost as Stepford-like as her mother. "Adorable."
"Of course they're adorable," Aunt Bev said, as she fluffed the skirt on Three's dress. "They're by Jorge."
"Well, pink must be Jorge's signature color," Heather said. "I mean, look at how much of it he used here."
"They're not pink," Regina said, with a toss of her head that sent a shudder through the mountain of lace attached to it. "They're salmon. It's all the rage this season." She fluttered her hands. "Go ahead, girls. Try them on."
Heather went to a dressing room and stuffed herself into the dress. The sleeves drooped to her elbows, at least six inches of hem dragged the ground, and it fit so snugly around her waist that breathing was a chore.
She pulled back the curtain. One through Five had morphed into gushy, grinning quintuplets with perfectly toned abs that didn't make the slightest bulges in the waistlines of their perfectly hideous dresses. It was like watching models on a Parisian runway wearing ridiculous clothes, yet for some reason, nobody laughed.
The seamstress smiled as she fanned her gaze over the flawless members of the wedding party. Then she zeroed in on Heather.
"Hmm," she said, running her hand over her waist of the dress and shaking her head. "It's a little tight."
Heather sighed. "I told Regina to get a fourteen, just in case. I knew it would have to be taken in, but‑‑"
"A fourteen?" Regina said, blinking innocently. "I'm sorry, Heather. I swore you said size twelve."
There was nothing wrong with Regina's hearing. It was just her way of coercing her cousin into a smaller size so she wouldn't have five women walking down the aisle who were pencil‑thin followed by one who looked like a gum eraser. So what if Heather wouldn't be able to breathe? As long as enough oxygen went to her brain that she stayed upright during the ceremony, that was all that mattered to Regina.
"I can let it out a little," the seamstress said. "But only a little. There's not much seam allowance."
"Can't you order the fourteen?" Heather asked.
"Too short notice."
"The wedding's not for a month," Regina said. "I'm sure you can drop a size by then."
Drop a size in a month? When she hadn't been able to drop a size in the past ten years?
"Try the Hollywood Watermelon Diet," Four said with a vacuous smile. "I once lost six pounds in a weekend on that one."
Great. Not only did Heather have to be in a wedding she was going to hate, she was going to have to starve herself for the privilege. As the seamstress knelt down to mark the hem of her dress, Heather wondered how many celery sticks she'd have to eat in the next month so she wouldn't look like ten pounds of potatoes in a five‑pound sack.
"So, Heather," Aunt Bev said. "Are you seeing anyone right now?"
The eternal question. One whose answer never seemed to change. "No, Aunt Bev. Nobody right now."
"What a shame. But don't worry. I'm sure you'll meet Mr. Right very soon."
The subtext was so thick Heather could barely wade through it, and all of it was directed squarely at her mother. My Regina's getting married and your Heather isn't even dating anyone.
"Actually, Heather is concentrating on her career right now," Barbara said. "A lot of young women are waiting until their thirties to marry."
"Is that what all the women's magazines are saying?" Aunt Bev said, looking befuddled. "If so, I'm afraid I wouldn't know about it. It's all I can do to get through every issue of Modern Bride."
"What they're saying," Barbara said, "is that some women choose to be successful in their own right before settling down and getting married."
"And I think Heather is very smart to do that," Aunt Bev said with an indulgent little smile. "That way if the worst happens and she doesn't find a man, at least she won't be struggling for the rest of her life to put food on the table."
Heather had long since learned to let Aunt Bev's comments roll right past her. Her mother hadn't. Heather could almost feel her mother's brain working, trying to manufacture a comeback, but when it came to sheer bitchiness, she couldn't hold a candle to Aunt Bev.
Heather took off her dress and put on her clothes again. As the seamstress marked the other bridesmaids' hems for alteration, Heather sat down on the bench next to her mother.
"Don't listen to Aunt Bev," Barbara muttered under her breath. "She's just jealous that you have a fabulous career while Regina barely made it out of college."
Truthfully, there was a limit to the fabulousness of a career as a CPA, if it even counted for anything in the first place where her family was concerned. Career women weren't put on the same pedestal as those who chose matrimony and the mommy track. What was valued the most was the ability to wed, procreate, raise progeny to adulthood, maintain a clean house, and sustain enough of a relationship with your husband that he didn't leave you for his secretary.
"Why don't I just tell Regina I don't want to be in the wedding?" Heather whispered. "She doesn't want me there in the first place. If I backed out, it would make both of us happy."
"No. If Regina asked, you have to do it."
"Angela told her no. Why can't I?"
"Angela is with the Peace Corps in Uganda."
"So that's all I have to do to get out of this? Live in squalor in a foreign country?"
"You're being unreasonable."
"What about Carol? She said no, too."
"You know Carol is having trouble getting her meds straightened out. God only knows how she'd behave the day of the wedding."
"So if I pop a few Prozac, I'll become ineligible, too?"
"As if anybody would actually think you're unbalanced?"
True. Everybody in her family had a reputation for something. Heather's was being sane.
"If you come up with some story now," her mother went on, "everybody will think you're jealous of Regina because she's getting married and you're not."
Heather started to say she didn't care what her family thought, but she knew her mother did. In front of Aunt Bev, she portrayed her daughter as a high‑flying career woman who couldn't be bothered with something as mundane as marriage. But Heather knew the truth. Her mother didn't want to say, Meet my daughter, the CPA. She wanted to say, Meet my daughter, her handsome husband, and her four lovely children.
Fifteen minutes later, after the fittings were over and they'd suffered through a lecture from Regina on the jewelry they were expected to wear for the wedding, Heather and her mother left the bridal shop. As soon as the door closed behind them, her mother rolled her eyes.
"Could you believe those dresses?" she said. "My sister may have money, but she has no taste. None whatsoever. But it doesn't matter. You still looked beautiful in that dress, no matter how horrible it was."
Beautiful? No. Heather was nothing if not a realist. She wasn't beautiful. But that didn't stop her mother from continually professing it, as if repetition would make it come true. As Heather was growing up, she could only imagine how her mother must have watched and waited for her ugly duckling to blossom into a swan. Instead, Heather had ended up somewhere between a chicken and a cockatiel. She had a headful of curls the color of a paper sack that she spent ten minutes every morning taming with a flat iron, a bump on the bridge of her nose she kept swearing she was going to have fixed, and a body polite people called "curvy." In the past ten years, she'd lost approximately fifty pounds. If only it hadn't been the same five pounds ten times, she might actually have gained a foothold on being thin.
On the positive side, she had clear skin, blue eyes everyone commented on, and nice white teeth that had never needed braces or fillings. But she'd always felt as if the bad outweighed the good, and if attention from men was any indication, she wasn't the only one who thought so.
They stopped beside Heather's car. "You are going on the bridesmaid trip tomorrow, aren't you?" her mother asked.
Heather groaned inwardly. A weekend jaunt to Las Vegas with Regina her five picture-perfect friends? She couldn't wait.
"Yeah, Mom. I'm going."
"Good. Aunt Bev and Uncle Gene are footing the bill. Take advantage of it." She gave Heather a quick hug. "Where are you off to now?"
"I'm meeting Alison for a quick drink at McMillan's."
"You'll have a good time in Vegas," her mother said, then shrugged nonchalantly. "And who knows? Maybe you'll meet a nice man."
There it was again. Heather could say she was going to a gay pride parade, and her mother would still say, Maybe you'll meet a nice man.
Heather hated to burst her mother's bubble, but for her this trip was going to consist of going to a few nice restaurants, sitting by the pool, catching up on her reading, and watching a lot of men watching five blond bridesmaids instead of watching her.
* * *
There was nothing like sitting on a barstool at McMillan's to put Tony McCaffrey in a good mood. He loved everything about the place‑‑the antique bar with the inset mirrors, the big screen TVs, the polished oak tables, the clacking of pool balls, the beat of the music, the hum of the crowd. When he went to heaven, he imagined God would welcome him inside the Pearly Gates and escort him to a bar and grill just like this one. Somebody would hand him a beer and a pool cue and surround him with a host of tall, leggy women with halos of blond hair whose only desire was to keep him company in paradise.
As soon as he bought this place, he wouldn't have to die to go to heaven.
Two weeks ago, he'd told his boss, John Stark, that he was leaving. John ran Lone Star Repossessions, where Tony had worked as an auto repossession agent for the past few years. It was a good fit for his skills and personality. He kept his own hours, the money was good, and on the rare occasion when dangerous deadbeats tried to cause trouble, he generally managed to talk his way out of the situation with a smile and a little bit of Texas good‑ol'‑boy charm. But when this bar came up for sale, he realized he was destined for bigger things. For once he'd be running his own show rather than being part of someone else's.
John told him he was sorry he was leaving, but he admired the fact that he wanted to go into business for himself. Then he'd pulled a bottle of Scotch out of his desk drawer, poured each of them a drink, and toasted Tony's future success.
God, that had felt good.
Tracy came to the table and slid his usual Sam Adams in front of him. She'd started working there about a month ago, and she was just his kind of woman‑‑quick with a beer, out for a good time, and very nice to look at, with long blond hair and legs to die for. Someday soon he intended to do more than just look.
Maybe that day was today.
"You're sure in a good mood," she said. "Could it be because you're getting ready to buy a certain bar and grill?"
He smiled and took a sip of his beer, which tasted even better than usual. "You bet it is. Monday's gonna be a red‑letter day."
"Everybody around here is thrilled that you're going to be the new owner." She leaned in and spoke confidentially. "Frank is such a tight-ass."
She was right. Frank was a tight-ass, and that was the last way Tony intended to be. There was no need to be a slave driver. A happy employee was a productive employee. That was going to be his motto from now on.
He couldn't believe how everything had fallen perfectly into place. He's put in an offer, and after a week of negotiation, Frank had finally agreed to finance the majority of the sales price, only to have their negotiations hit a stalemate when Tony was twenty thousand short of what he insisted on for a down payment. That was when he hit his friend Dave up to loan him the twenty thousand, and in return, he would become a silent partner.
Tony performed the necessary due diligence. He checked out the current demographic trends and the projected business growth in the area. Hired somebody to do a projected profit/loss statement. Ordered inspections of the building and the facilities. Everything had looked good, and they were set to close on Monday morning.
He couldn't wait.
As Tracy walked away, Tony turned and looked out over the room. Even though the crowd was light at five o'clock, he knew it would pick up considerably in the next hour. Right now, two guys were drinking beer and playing pool. A young couple was deep in conversation at a table near the door. And Tracy had just walked over to set a couple of martinis in front of two women who sat in a booth against the wall.
The women weren't exactly his type‑‑a little too ordinary looking‑‑but anyone who came through the door with money in their pockets looking for a good time were going to be his new favorite customers. He intended to become Mr. Hospitality, courting every one of them with great food, drink specials, and a big, welcoming smile. A neighborhood bar was all about making people feel right at home, and that was exactly what he intended to do.
He turned to see Dave come through the door. Tony had arranged to meet him here to get a check for the twenty thousand, which he was going to deposit this afternoon, which meant he'd be right on track for the Monday morning closing. Tony waved at him, and he made his way over to the table and sat down.
"Beer?" Tony said. "I'm buying."
"Aw, come on. Have one with me. I feel like celebrating."
Dave shifted uncomfortably. "Yeah? Well, you're not going to feel like it in a minute."
Tony froze, a feeling of dread creeping through him. "Dave? What are you talking about?"
Dave blew out a breath. "Bad news, man."
"I can't give you the twenty thousand."
* * *
"Bridesmaid dresses are supposed to be ugly," Alison said, as she twirled the spear of olives in her martini glass. "It's the law."
Heather took a healthy sip of her own martini, hoping by the time she got to the bottom of the glass, the memory of those dresses would be obliterated.
Oh, hell. Who was she kidding? She could chug an entire bottle of gin and she still wouldn't be able to forget.
Alison tucked a strand of her straight brown hair behind her ear, then put her elbow on the table and rested her chin in her hand, listening to Heather get the bridal shop experience out of her system. Alison had perpetually widened brown eyes that made her look as if she was interested in anything a person had to say even when she wasn't. This was probably one of those times when she wasn't, but she was too good a friend to say so.
"It wasn't just that the style was weird," Heather said. "It was the color, too. They were pink."
Alison's forehead crinkled. "Pink's not really your color."
"That pink wasn't anybody's color. Take a blender. Throw in a chunk of watermelon. Toss in a dozen flamingo feathers. Top it off with a bottle of Pepto Bismol. Hit the button, and there you go."
"How about we make a pact?" Alison said. "When we get married, we have veto power over each other's bridesmaid dresses. That'll lessen the chances of either one of us making a tragic mistake."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Heather said.
They locked pinky fingers, entering into the umpteenth pact they'd made since junior high. The first one had been a pinky swear that unless they both got dates to the Christmas dance, neither one of them would go, which turned out to be a non-issue since nobody asked either one of them.
"Do you remember when we were in high school," Alison said, "and we made lists of the qualities we wanted in the men we married?"
Heather remembered. Her list had included intelligent, well‑dressed, and good sense of humor. Alison's list had consisted of nice body, good kisser, and well‑hung. Even though they'd both been virgins at the time, Alison's intuition told her that size really did matter.
"Yeah," Heather said. "I wanted a professional man. You wanted a porn star."
"Hey! Stamina is a very worthwhile quality in a man. I mean, if it's over in five minutes, then what's the point of doing it at all?" Alison looked across the room. "And speaking of men we'd like to marry..."
Heather turned to see one of McMillan's regulars sitting at a table with another man she didn't recognize. Her heart always skipped a little whenever she saw Tony McCaffrey, but only because there were certain basic reactions a woman couldn't fight.
"Marriage?" Heather said. "A man like him?"
"You're right. Forget marriage. I'd settle for a nice, steamy affair."
Which was about all a man like Tony would be able to deliver, since guys like him were all about playing the field. With those captivating green eyes and dazzling smile, he could have a woman stark naked before she knew what hit her.
"Yeah, he's gorgeous, all right," Heather said. "But would you really want a man like him?"
"Please. Would you kick him out of bed?"
"I'd never go to bed with him in the first place."
Alison rolled her eyes. "You are such a liar."
"No, I'm not. I like men with brains. Guys like him are so good‑looking they've never had to rely on anything else."
"I don't know about you," Alison said, "but I'd be having sex with the man, not asking him to derive a new law of physics."
"Fine. Why don't you hop over there and see if he's free tonight?"
"Right," Alison said. "And the entire time we were talking, he'd be looking over my shoulder at one of the waitress's butts."
"Exactly. What's the future with a guy like him?"
"Forget the future. I'd be perfectly willing to take him one night at a time." Alison sighed wistfully. "Why is it women like us never get men like him?"
"Because we're B-cups with three-digit I.Q.s."
"Seriously. Look what we have to offer. We're college graduates. We have good jobs with 401(k)s. We're not in therapy. Maybe we're not Miss America material, but we don't scare small children, do we?"
Heather frowned. "Next you're going to say we have good personalities and childbearing hips."
"Trouble is, we have boring professions. You're an accountant, and I'm a loan officer. What man wants to date either one of those?"
"So what should we do? Become flight attendants? Exotic dancers? Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders?"
"I was thinking Hooters girls. Just once I'd like a man to love me for my body instead of my mind."
And that was exactly what it took to get the attention of a man like Tony: a hot body in low‑slung jeans and a tight T‑shirt that showed off perky breasts, a belly‑button ring and a small‑of‑the‑back tattoo. A woman whose intelligence was inversely proportional to her bra size.
Tracy swung by and asked if they wanted another martini. Heather just asked for the check.
"Leaving so soon?" Alison asked.
"Soon as I finish this one. I have to get up early in the morning. Regina's picking me up at seven to go to the airport."
"So you're actually going on the bridesmaid trip? You said you'd rather sit through a time share presentation in Death Valley."
"Well, it is a free trip, and I've never been to Vegas." Then she sighed. "And my mother really wants me to go. It reminds me of when she wanted me try out for the high school drill team."
"So you could be around all the popular girls?"
"I think she's hoping if I hang out with Regina and the other bridesmaids, there'll be men all over the place. That way at least I'll have a shot at getting one of their castoffs."
"Actually," Alison said, "that's not a bad plan."
"Wrong. It's the sign of a desperate woman. And my mother is more desperate than most. It drives me crazy."
But if Heather were honest with herself, the reason it drove her crazy was because she was beginning to feel a little desperate herself. The closer she got to thirty, the more she felt a million years of evolution bearing down on her. No, she'd didn't want Og smacking her over the head with his club and dragging her back to his cave to make little Oggies, but she wasn't immune to the forces of nature. A forward‑moving relationship with a man that eventually led to marriage would be nice, but so far it hadn't happened.
She glanced back at Tony. Yeah, he was hot, all right, but men like him had never been part of her dreams, just as she'd never been part of theirs. She'd always figured that the man she married probably wouldn't be all that handsome, but he would be reasonably attractive. He might not be wickedly charming, but he'd certainly be a good conversationalist. They'd settle down, have a couple of kids, take summer vacations, and plan for retirement.
Heather had always prided herself on being a realist, and that was reality.
* * *
Tony couldn't believe this. Three days before closing, and suddenly Dave was pulling the rug right out from under him?
"Come on, Dave," Tony said. "You can't do this to me. You said you'd loan me the money."
"It's my wife. We had a big fight last night, and she told me I couldn't give you the twenty thousand."
Tony took a calming breath, trying to keep his panic under control. "Dave. You told me you talked to her. You said she was okay with it."
"She was. Then she got to talking to her girlfriends. They told her that if I was part owner of a bar, I'd be spending all my time there."
"That's crazy! You're going to be a silent partner. I'll be running the place."
"I tried to tell her that, but she wouldn't listen. She's convinced I'll want to be here all the time. She already thinks I play too much golf."
"So tell her you'll play less golf. Tell her you'll throw your damned golf clubs in the lake. For God's sake, tell her something. I'm set to close on this place on Monday morning!"
"Sorry, man. I can't help you."
Tony sat back, reeling with disbelief. "Dave? How long have we been friends?"
Dave looked away. "A couple of years."
"Six years. Six. Ever since we worked at Charlie's together. And this is what you do to me?"
"You're a friend, Tony. She's my wife. I have to live with her. And trust me. Sometimes that ain't easy." He checked his watch and sighed. "I have to get home. If I'm late for dinner, I'll catch hell."
He started to get out of the booth. Tony grabbed his arm. "Come on, Dave. I'm begging you. Do something. You know how much I want to buy this place."
When Dave looked at him sadly, Tony knew he was sunk. "Sorry, buddy. I really am. But I just can't help you."
Dave walked away, leaving Tony alone with his beer, his frustration, and a dream that was falling apart at the seams. If he didn't show up with the entire down payment at the closing on Monday morning, the deal was dead.
Think. Think! How can you come up with twenty thousand dollars by Monday?
He sat there a long time, trying to formulate a plan, but nothing came to him. He was completely tapped out himself, and he had no other friends he could borrow that kind of money from, particularly on short notice. No friends, and certainly no family members.
He didn't own a house, so a home equity loan was out.
He glanced over at the pool tables. He had no doubt he could bet on a few games and come out a winner, but betting on pool in a neighborhood bar wouldn't net him twenty grand until the beginning of the next millennium, much less by Monday.
He dropped his head to his hands for a moment, letting out a breath of disappointment. By the time this place came up for sale again, he'd probably be collecting Social Security.
Then slowly he raised his head again as a thought occurred to him. There was a way he could conceivably put twenty thousand dollars in his pocket before Monday. Betting on pool might be out, but there were other kinds of gambling...
No. He was crazy even to consider it.
But as the minutes passed and his desperation grew, even a crazy plan seemed better than no plan. It was a long shot‑‑such a ridiculous long shot that no reasonable man would even consider doing it‑‑but it was his only shot at keeping this opportunity from passing him by.
He took out his cell phone, dialed American Airlines, and booked a flight to Las Vegas, praying Lady Luck would follow him all the way there.