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The fluorescent lights of the Sephora on North Michigan Avenue washed Hannah’s skin and bathed her tired face with a forgiving glow. Windows splashed with cosmopolitan displays outside gave way to rows of bright cosmetics and lush perfumes inside. Beauty consultants in head-to-toe black buzzed from customer to shelf and back again. Everywhere Hannah looked, women were smiling.
Maybe there was something she needed here after all.
She inhaled what felt like her first satisfying breath in weeks. Adjusting the strap of her messenger bag atop her shoulder, she strode into the din of pampering paradise.
Hannah’s flight to Chicago had been smooth, and arrival at The Drake went off without a hitch. The lakeview junior suite for her annual girls’ weekend trip with her two sisters, Heather and Heidi, was ready at three o’clock check-in, and she was pleased to have the evening to herself before they joined her the following day.
Hannah loved her sisters. She was the middle child, and she and her two siblings had always been known affectionately as “The Truitt Girls” in their hometown of Broken Bow, Nebraska. But when Heather married and moved to Charlotte and Heidi got a job in Denver, there was only Hannah left.
And Hannah’s life had been a little dramatic lately, largely because of her attempts to try and end things with her boyfriend. She eventually did—and she and Donovan now referred to each other as “ex”—but it wasn’t easy.
Weathering that and coming out of it in one piece, she offered herself a mental reminder. I deserve this time away.
So why did it feel like she needed to keep convincing herself of that?
She was also doing that a lot lately: not always trusting her gut and instead overanalyzing before she committed to even the slightest act. It was a habit of which Hannah was aware, and maybe being in this new metropolitan setting, at least for the weekend, would provide the jump start she needed to break that habit.
Hannah’s interior conversation quieted as she strolled past eye shadow palettes, lipstick samplers, and mascara displays, as well as cosmetics and contraptions she could barely recognize. An eyelash curler looked more like a gynecological clamp for Tinker Bell, while exfoliating cloths and long-handled files looked more like tools for waterboarding than personal grooming.
She wasn’t about to try to take any of those items through airport check-in, so they were off limits for buying. With the sensitivity of security, she would never board a plane with anything that could be misconstrued as a weapon, even if it was only used in the name of beauty. Women go through such pains to primp, pluck, and prime, with gadgets and gizmos aplenty. Stores like this were a sharp reminder of that.
A Sephora employee interrupted Hannah’s mental detour into women’s beauty routines. “May I help you find something?” The beauty consultant’s voice was as perky as her figure. She had probably tried every contraption in the store, along with the best of the best when it came to all of the cosmetics offered for sale.
“Maybe.” Hannah scanned the nearest display, wondering if there was anything she forgot to pack in the makeup bag she threw inside her suitcase before she left Nebraska. She tried to remember exactly what personal items she’d packed, but the details were a fog. Nothing jumped out at her.
But it did for the beauty consultant.
“You need a lip touch-up.” The Sephora employee pivoted on her heel to grab something Hannah couldn’t see from a nearby display.
“Pardon?” Hannah drew her messenger bag closer. With so much retail temptation and now the personal attention of a beauty consultant, Hannah sensed she wasn’t going to be able to hold on to her money for long. For all she knew, this woman worked on commission—or at least some heavy cosmetic company incentive kickbacks—so she wasn’t going to let Hannah out of her crosshairs.
“A lip touch-up.” The consultant spun back around and held an open tube of crimson lipstick at Hannah’s eye level. “The perfect red for your skin,” she declared, her voice absent of any hesitation in her choice.
Hannah cringed at the color. “Oh, that’s too bright for me.” Simple mattes in a shade or two deeper than her natural hue were her typical picks when it came to purchasing a new tube of lipstick. And she didn’t always wear the stuff anyway. Sometimes, a sheer gloss or moisturizing balm was all she used.
“You really should try it.” The woman’s tone exuded confidence. “Perfect complement to your olive skin and dark hair.”
Those deeper features were exactly why she stayed away from bright lips. Too much drama.
And I’ve had enough of that in my life as it is.
“One application. You’ll thank me.” The consultant was nothing if not persistent.
Hannah shook back loose hair resting on her cheeks that had fallen out of her ponytail. Then, considering, she popped her lips. “I’ll try it,” though she expected the color would look more clownish than couture.
The consultant gave a satisfied smile as she readied a cotton swab to transfer the saturated color. “Step over here a bit.” She motioned to a convenient mirror. “I’m Michelle.” She offered the introduction as if to make the demonstration more personal.
“Hannah.” Her reply was automatic yet cordial, just like she had to be with her financial clients. Managing their portfolios, she was trusted to be pleasant yet firm, knowledgeable yet practical.
And crimson lipstick just didn’t seem practical.
The beauty consultant’s hand moved quickly over Hannah’s pout, lining the lips first with color before filling in the rest of the skin. “I like to spend a little more time—” Michelle concentrated as she spoke “—on the area I like to call the heart.” She swiped in a feathered motion across the bow of Hannah’s upper lip and the exact center of her lower. “Extra color there goes a long way.”
Hannah fought the urge to pop her lips again until Michelle drew back her hand. “There! All done. Have a look.” She stepped back so Hannah could see the result in the mirror.
It was just lipstick, so how dramatic could the reflection be?
Hannah felt as if she’d been sucker-punched when she saw herself for sheer surprise. The crimson was anything but clownish. Instead, it made her teeth seem whiter and her cheeks appear more flushed. Did the color alone intensify her green eyes?
Out of questions and because Michelle clearly held the answer, Hannah simply replied, “I’ll take it.”
Her first purchase from this downtown hub of posh storefronts was a single tube of lipstick from Sephora. At least she was starting off small. Chicago’s Magnificent Mile would keep Hannah and her sisters busy for the next few days. And the more they shopped, the less time there would be for them to pry into Hannah’s recent breakup—which she conveniently had not yet told them about. Shopping was easier than spilling her secrets. As the associate searched for the correct tube from the display, Hannah asked, “What’s the shade called?”
Michelle found the match and handed her the lipstick. “All You Need is Red.”
Hannah rolled her eyes, thinking about her breakup. “If that’s all I needed, I should have found this a long time ago.”
Michelle smiled. “Then are you sure you don’t want to buy a backup tube?”
Hannah left Sephora with a bounce in her step. She had bought makeup plenty of times before, and she had even been adventurous a time or two in trying something different.
Maybe not this different, she admitted silently. She still couldn’t believe the color she’d purchased. It was so unlike her.
She stepped into the atrium of the Water Tower Place where rows and rows of stores on multiple levels were at her fingertips. It was a great location for her to kill some time because everything was centralized. There were plenty of areas like this all up and down Michigan Avenue, along with stores that fronted the actual street. Those were for higher-end shopping, and she could certainly try some of them with her sisters when they arrived the following day.
From the looks of it, enough people were making use of Water Tower Place today. The deals must be good here. Hannah watched patron after patron parade by with retail bags strapped around their arms. Surely there’s got to be a better way to carry some of those. A few of the more petite women looked as if they would topple over at any minute under the weight of their purchases.
Hannah imagined, though, that she and her sisters would look like some of these women over the coming days. Would they be deal-seeking retail hounds teetering through the Magnificent Mile in a trail of credit card receipts—and debt? They did decide on meeting in Chicago, in part for the shopping. But as Hannah watched trend-chasing women overloaded with their latest finds, she wondered if maybe she and her sisters ought to set some limits.
Otherwise we might all end up blowing our yearly travel budget just in this one trip. And Hannah had to think ahead, especially since she and her sisters were planning on attending their cousin Whitney’s wedding in Texas later in the year. She could cash in some frequent flyer miles for that trip, but it was still going to be an expense.
Hannah stepped away from the center of pedestrian traffic inside the atrium and leaned against the corner edge of the Sephora storefront, away from the store windows and the sight line of associates trained to push sales. She popped open a mirrored compact to check her reflection, half expecting the more normal lighting of the plaza to shine the truth on how ridiculous this crimson shade of “All You Need is Red” lipstick really was on her lips.
She turned her face left to right, studying her reflection and profile as she allowed the interior shadows of the space to cast different views of the crimson color on her lips.
Red could look so right. And red could look so wrong.
But to Hannah’s surprise, she hadn’t gone wrong with this choice.
I don’t look like a clown. On the contrary, Hannah looked—and felt—radiant.
Marveling at how complementary this color looked even in a different light, Hannah decided maybe she needed to take the advice of people who knew what they were talking about more often. Clearly, that’s what she always expected her client base to do when it came to trusting her expertise with financial decisions.
So if her own clients could trust her, why did she have a hard time trusting herself lately?
Especially when it came to matters of the heart. He ex still occupied more of her mind that she admitted aloud.
That’s it, she told herself. No more thinking about…him. She didn’t even want to let the syllables of his name utilize any of her brain space. If she willed her ex out of her mind and focused on her girls’ getaway, maybe she could finally get over him.
And people-watching might help.
Hannah clicked her compact closed and stared ahead of her. She tried to ignore all of the obtrusive women laden down with shopping bags and focus on the men instead. There were some good-looking ones sprinkled in and among the crowds of pedestrians.
Men who walked with a purpose were the first to catch Hannah’s attention. Whether they were headed to a specific store to choose a gift for a special someone or whether they were there to pick up something for themselves, men who wore a determined look were attractive.
So were the ones in dark denim. Something about deep-colored jeans on a well-toned man just screamed sexy to her. They walked the line between trendy and tempting.
Then there were the urban, rugged ones. Women can never go wrong with tall, dark, and handsome. Those types were easy to spot.
Some observation, though, required a bit more of a laser focus. To really know a man, he needed to be observed from tip to toe, for a man’s shoes can say a lot about him. Hannah lowered her gaze to the feet that shuffled past, noting the types of footwear she saw. Some brands she could identify; others were just a guess. Men don’t think women notice their shoes.
But women do notice.
And women especially notice bad choices.
Like those athletic ones with trousers, Hannah observed. Yuck.
Or those too-far-gone leather sandals that clopped by. Really, in Chicago? Hannah just shook her head.
Hannah tallied others. Leather loafers? Boring. Wingtip boots? Trying too hard. Street sneakers? Too old for those. Dress shoes with tiny tassels? Most definitely not. Deck shoes? Maybe. But not on him.
Turning from toes to top so as not to get bored, Hannah concentrated instead on the faces of the men who passed by. Some had the steely concentration of being on a retail mission. Nothing wrong with that, of course, especially in a location like Water Tower Place. Others looked dazed, like they had just exited a fun house of mirrors. Still others appeared not to be shopping at all, especially the ones who held phones to their ears with such closeness that the devices may have been permanently attached.
But there was the occasional diamond in the rough, a man with some degree of understated suaveness that struck Hannah even at a distance. For many, it was the way they carried themselves with sophistication. A couple of others just had a smoothness of movement that reminded Hannah of the look of models in cologne advertisements. Brawny and built, they were the types where she could even imagine their husky scents as they walked, evidence of it trailing for others in their wake as they passed.
Craving crested all the way from the atrium to where Hannah stood when those pieces of eye candy paraded past. Titillation moved from the visual to the personal, as her core experienced a tingling of turn-on. The harder she looked, the more attraction she saw.
Sex walked upright on two legs as certain men passed.
But just like watching a parade, she could look but not touch.
“Just my luck,” she mumbled, stifling the brief arousal and stuffing the tingling back into place.
Breaking her own spell of male-centered daydreaming, she focused instead of what she needed to do prior to her sisters’ arrival. She realized she hadn’t yet checked in with them since her own entry into Chicago. So she unsnapped the side pocket of her messenger bag to retrieve her cell phone. Tapping with her thumb to light the screen, she pressed her address book icon and scrolled to Heidi’s name. That way, she could touch base and make sure she and Heather were still on track with travels plans for the next day.
“Hey, ya!” Her younger sister always answered calls cheerfully. “How’s Chicago?”
Hannah looked around at her view inside Water Tower Place where storefronts, signage, and sales announcements all competed for her attention. “Expensive.”
“Well don’t spend all your money until we get there. We’ve got to do some damage as a team, you know?”
That was one thing she always appreciated about her sisters. Even through their different paths of careers, moves, and boyfriends, they maintained a strong bond. Hannah hoped that would continue with both her sisters through the rest of their lives. Heather was married, but she made a concerted effort to continue meaningful communication with both Hannah and Heidi on a fairly frequent and predictable schedule.
It was Heidi who worried her more.
Hannah countered, “You’ve got a wedding to pay for.” Heidi had just recently gotten engaged. Understandably, she was over the moon. But Hannah could only take hearing about how wonderful her life was for so long before she’d call her out on oversharing. “Or have you forgotten?”
Hannah knew that couldn’t have been the case even before Heidi gave a sugar-sweet reply, complete with her fiancé’s pet name. “No way. I could never forget my Boo!”
Oversharing. Hannah switched ears and spoke again into the phone with a dismissive, “Wouldn’t want you to.”
Hearing the affection in Heidi’s voice and knowing she was smitten about everything involving her engagement was a little too saccharine for Hannah, especially given her own recent un-coupling.
Which you still don’t know about. She wanted to tell Heidi—she wanted to tell someone—but the timing just hadn’t been right. Sharing good news was easy. It was sharing disappointing news that was tough. Her sisters had liked Donovan. They willingly welcomed him into their family fold, and it seemed like everyone saw a future with him as part of the Truitt family.
But Donovan was possessive, and he couldn’t handle a woman outshining him. Hannah’s successes and her drive at work had brought out his own securities and jealousy. Red flags of unfavorable behavior waved heavy in front of Hannah, and she’d had to end the relationship.
She wasn’t, though, about to share any of this with Heidi over the phone. Instead, she steered the conversation back to their trip. “So when it comes to Chicago shopping, I think the options here are going to have us pretty well covered.”
Heidi squealed into the phone with delight at the prospects. “You know I can’t wait!” Her excitement was palpable, even from hundreds of miles away. “There’s strength in numbers. Even when it comes to retail.”
“Right,” Hannah snorted. “Like stores give sister discounts?”
“You never know!” Heidi’s optimism shone through her words. “Worth a shot.”
Hannah’s mind reeled with a quick image of the three of them marching into a store and immediately being met by associates offering “Buy One, Get Two Free” offers.
Sadly, that wasn’t how sister shopping worked.
“I think we’re going to be out of luck.”
Heidi, the eternal optimist, pressed on. “Maybe. But maybe not. Have you bought anything yet?”
Hannah glanced down at her bag and to the tiny purchase she had placed inside. “A little.” But even that admission was a stretch.
“Oooh!” Heidi cooed into the phone. “Do tell! Something from Burberry? Gucci? Tiffany’s?”
Hannah cut into her sister’s luxurious list of stores that were nothing but a daydream. “Who do you think I am?”
“Sure.” Heidi paused. “You’re more sensible. So did you get a work case from Tumi?”
“That wouldn’t be any cheaper.”
“If we get a sisters’ discount it would be.”
That was just like Heidi, always bringing her optimism full circle.
Hannah switched her phone to her other ear as she blew out a breath. Not wanting to admit her only purchase so far had been lipstick, she simply said, “I’ll show you when you get here.”
“Suit yourself.” Heidi then reminded Hannah of her flight time and gave an estimate for when she and Heather would make it to The Drake after sharing a taxi.
Hannah responded to the rattling off of the plans. “I’ll remember. I’ll be there.” Hannah hoped she would have a relaxing morning of just sleeping in before her sisters arrived. She would need the rest knowing the energy level of those two, who no doubt would want to hit the city full throttle.
“Safe travels, and I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”
Heidi verbalized a dramatic sound of a cheek smooch into the phone and in her best Yankee accent—which wasn’t very good—offered an enthusiastic, “Darling, I can hardly wait!”
End of Excerpt