“We can always leave without buying anything,” Meghann said. “Try them on. Just for fun.”
“Just for fun.”
“Hurry up, you two! I haven’t the whole day.” Risa’s voice rang out, startling Claire, who hurried forward.
Meghann hung back as Risa went from rack to rack, piling one dress after another into her arms.
A few minutes later, Claire stepped into a dressing area that was bigger than her bedroom. Three floor-to-ceiling mirrors fanned out in front of her. A small wooden platform stood in the center.
“Go on. The dresses are in there. Try one on,” Risa gave her a gentle shove.
Claire went into the dressing room, where several gowns hung waiting. The first one was a stunning white silk Ralph Lauren with an intricate lace-and-beadwork patterned bodice. Another was a romantic peach-tinged ivory Prada with ruffled, capped sleeves and a slightly asymmetrical hemline. There was a white silk Armani sheath: simplicity itself with a plunging V neck and a draped, sexy back.
Claire didn’t allow herself to look at the prices. This was her make-believe moment. She could afford anything. She peeled out of her wrinkled jeans and work T-shirt and tossed them on the floor. (She did not look at her faded, overwashed JCPenney bra and Jockey-for-Her underwear.)
The Ralph Lauren gown floated over her shoulders like a cloud and fell down her nearly nak*d body. From the neck down, she looked like Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential.
“Come on, honey. Let’s see,” Risa said.
She opened the door and stepped into the dressing area.
There was a gasp at her entrance. Then Risa shouted, “Shoes!” and ran off.
Meg stood there, holding an armful of dresses. Her lips parted in a soft sigh.
Claire couldn’t help smiling. At the same time, she had the oddest urge to cry. “That Ralph Lauren is no slouch. Of course, my car cost less than this dress.” She stepped up onto the platform and looked at herself in the mirror. No wonder Meghann had hated the gowns this morning.
Risa came back, brandishing a pair of strappy high-heeled sandals.
Claire laughed. “Who do you think I am—Carrie Bradshaw? My nose would bleed if I wore heels that high. Not to mention the fact that I’d break a hip when I fell.”
“Hush. Put them on.”
Claire did as she was told, then stood very still. Every breath threatened to send her toppling off the block.
“Aagh. Your mother, she did not teach you to stand in heels. A crime. I get you pumps.” Her mouth twisted slightly at the last word.
When Risa disappeared, Meghann laughed. “The only thing Mama taught us was how to walk in shoes you’d outgrown.”
“She always had a new pair.”
A look passed between them, a moment of perfect understanding; when it passed, and they were back in ordinary time, Claire felt a tug of regret.
“I think the fabric is too flimsy, don’t you?” Claire said. Her job was to find a flaw in each dress, a reason her sister shouldn’t spend this much money.
Meghann frowned. “Too flimsy? You look gorgeous.”
“It hangs on every bulge. I’d have to wear undergarments made by Boeing.”
“Claire. It’s a size ten. One more comment like that and you’ll qualify for the Hollywood Wives Eating Disorder League.”
After that, Claire tried on a succession of dresses, each one more beautiful than the last. She felt like a princess, and it didn’t ruin the day at all that she had to decline each one. She could always find one tiny thing that made the dress less than perfect. The sleeves are too short, too wide, too ruffled. . . . The neckline is too sweet, too sexy, too traditional. . . . The feel of this one isn’t right.
She could tell that Meghann was getting frustrated. She kept delivering armfuls of gowns. “Here, try these,” she said every time. Meg and patience had never known each other well.
Risa had long ago gone on to other customers.
Finally, Claire came to the last dress of the day. Meghann had chosen it. An elegant white gown with a heavily beaded tank bodice and a flowing taffeta silk skirt.
Claire unhooked her bra and stepped into the dress. She was still fastening the back as she stepped out of the dressing room.
Meghann was completely silent.
Claire frowned. She heard Risa in another part of the store, chattering loudly to another customer.
Claire looked at her sister. “You’re uncharacteristically quiet. Should I begin the Heimlich?”
Claire lifted the heavy skirt off the ground and stepped up onto the platform. Slowly, she faced the trifold mirror.
The woman who stared back at her wasn’t Claire Cavenaugh. No. This woman hadn’t partied her way out of a state college and decided that cosmetology was a viable career choice, only to quit attending those classes as well . . . she hadn’t borne a child out of wedlock because her lover refused to marry her . . . and she certainly didn’t manage a campground that pretended it was a resort.
This woman arrived in limousines and drank champagne from fluted glasses. She slept on high-thread-count sheets and always had a current passport.
This was the woman she could have been, if she’d gone to college in New York and done graduate work in Paris. Maybe it was the woman she could still become.
How could a dress highlight everything that had gone wrong with your life and subtly promise a different future? She imagined the look on Bobby’s face when she walked down the aisle. Bobby, who’d knelt on one knee when he asked her to please, please be his wife. If he saw her in this dress . . .
Meghann came up behind her, stood on the platform.
There they were, side by side. Mama’s girls, who’d once been closer than sisters and were now so far apart.
Meghann touched Claire’s bare shoulder. “Don’t even try to find something wrong with this dress.”
“I didn’t look at the price tag, but—”
Meghann ripped the tag in half. “And you won’t.” She turned, raised a hand. “Risa. Get over here.”
Claire looked at her sister. “You knew, didn’t you? You handpicked it.”
Meg tried not to smile. “It’s Vera Wang, honey. Of course I knew. I also knew your defenses were a bit high at the outset. You don’t want me to buy your dress.”
“It’s not that I don’t want you to.”
“It’s okay, Claire. It means a lot to me that you’ve included me in your wedding.”
“We’re family,” Claire answered after a long pause. It felt awkward, this conversation, and vaguely dangerous. As if they were skating on a frozen pond that couldn’t possibly hold their weight. “Thank you for the dress. It’s what . . .” Her voice cracked a little. “I always dreamed of.”
Meg finally smiled. “Just because I don’t believe in marriage doesn’t mean I can’t plan a kick-ass wedding, you know.”
Risa stepped into the dressing room, her face flushed, her arms full of gowns. “The Wang,” she said softly, looking at Meg. “You said this would be her choice.”
“A good guess.”
“She is the picture of love, yes?” Risa hung up the unnecessary gowns and went to Claire. “We’ll need to take in the bust a little—just to there, don’t you think?—and let out the waist. We’ll also need to choose a veil. Something elegant, yes? Not too ornate. What shoes will you wear?” She began pinning and pulling.
“These pumps are fine.”
Risa knelt down to pin the hemline. “I’ll keep the skirt long. In case you change your mind, which you must do. It’ll be ready in time,” she promised when she was finished, then hurried off.
After she’d been gone for a moment, Claire said, “How did you know I’d choose this dress?”
“At my wedding, I overheard you talking to Elizabeth. You said a wedding dress should be simple. You were right. Mine looked like something a circus performer would wear.” Meghann seemed determined to smile. “Maybe that’s why Eric left me.”
Claire heard the hurt in her sister’s voice. It was thin and quiet, a thread fluttering. It surprised her. Claire always imagined her sister’s defenses to be solid granite. “He hurt you, didn’t he?”
“Of course he hurt me. He broke my heart and then wanted my money. It would have been a lot easier if I’d had a prenuptial agreement. Or better yet, if I’d lived with him instead of marrying him.”
Claire couldn’t help smiling at the not-so-subtle reminder. This time it made sense. “If marrying Bobby is a mistake, it’s one I want to make.”
“Yeah. That’s the thing about love. It’s inherently optimistic. No wonder I stick to sex instead. Now, how about if we pick up some takeout from the Wild Ginger and eat at my place?”
“—is having dinner at Zeke’s Drive-In and joining Sam and Bobby for date night at the Big Bowl. I called Gina from Everett.”
Claire smiled. “Bobby is going to date night at the bowling alley? And you don’t believe in true love. Now, help me out of this dress.” Claire hiked up the falling dress and picked her way carefully to the dressing room. She was just about to shut the door when she remembered to say, “Your wedding dress was beautiful, Meghann, and you were beautiful. I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings when I said that to Elizabeth. We’d had a few drinks by then.”
“My sleeves looked like open umbrellas. God knows why I picked it. No, that’s not true. Sadly, I inherited Mama’s style sense. As soon as I started making money, I hired a personal shopper. Anyway, thanks for the apology.”
Claire closed the dressing-room door and changed back into her clothes. They spent another hour trying on veils and then shoes. When they had chosen everything, Meghann took Claire by the arm and led her out of the boutique.
In front of the Wild Ginger, Meghann double-parked, ran into the restaurant, and came out three minutes later with a paper sack. She tossed it into Claire’s lap, jumped into the driver’s seat, and stomped on the gas.
They turned down Pike Street and veered left hard, into an underground parking lot.
Claire followed her sister into the elevator, up to the penthouse floor, and into the condo.
The view was breathtaking. An amethyst almost-night sky filled every picture window. To the north, the sleepy community of Queen Anne sparkled with multicolored light. The Space Needle, decked out in summertime colors, filled one window. Everywhere else, it was the midnight-blue Sound, its dark surface broken only by the streamers of city lights along the shore.
“Wow,” Claire said.
“Yeah. It’s some view,” Meghann said, plopping the paper sack on the kitchen’s black granite countertop.
Everywhere Claire looked, she saw perfection. Not a painting was askew on the silk-covered walls, not a piece of paper cluttered a table. Of course there was no dust.
She walked over to a small Biedermeier desk in the corner. On its shiny surface stood a single framed photograph. It was the only one in the room, as far as she could tell.