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The wedding dress was perfect, that wasn’t the problem. Lilou Langdon eyed her full-length reflection in the angled mirrors unhappily while the dressmaker made small adjustments with pins. The strapless ivory gown was classic and elegant, made from a crushproof fabric that could be rolled up in a suitcase. Practical but glamorous enough for the Caribbean resort where she and James planned to marry and stay on for their honeymoon. She’d been thrilled with the dress when she’d found it.
Now she felt… flat. Angry. Confused. A little bit sick.
How could she marry James after what he and his parents had just put her auntie May through over lunch? Lilou couldn’t believe James could be that snobby, entitled, and rude. Sure, she’d had glimpses before but she’d ignored them—as she’d ignored a lot of things. Now here she was, a week away from the wedding, having massive doubts.
Simba, her Pomeranian, had been sitting quietly in his tote, on his best behavior. Now he seemed to sense her anguish and jumped out to scamper over to the dais. Lilou had to smile; he was so adorable with his new grooming, like a little lion, with a reddish-gold mane, plush body fur, and a jaunty tassel on his tail.
Lilou scooped him up and cuddled him close. “What am I going to do, sweetie?” she whispered.
Simba, his bright eyes fixed adoringly on her, attempted to lick her chin.
“Ma’am, the dress.” The dressmaker, a thin woman with a black bun at the nape of her neck, tutted at the dog.
Reluctantly, Lilou put Simba down and he trotted back to sit beside the chair.
The dressmaker adjusted the chiffon train, draping it over the dark blue carpet. Then she stood to one side, waiting. “You said you wanted to take a photo?”
“Oh, yes.” Lilou raised her phone to take a selfie to post on Instagram. Her nine hundred thousand followers had been with her every step of the way of her fairy-tale engagement and were clamoring for pictures of her dress. Feeling as if she was taking part in a charade, she snapped the photo and tapped in a caption.
The perfect dress for a destination wedding. #Carribeanresort #beachwedding #honeymoon #luxury-travel #livingmybestlife #blissfullyhappy
The last hash tag brought a fresh flood of doubts. Was she happy? Anyone would say she should be. She was engaged to one of the most eligible bachelors in New York City. Wealthy family, old money. But today James had crossed a line and she couldn’t unhear the things he’d said, or unsee the humiliation on Auntie May’s face.
How could Lilou go through with the wedding after today? Yet her stomach fluttered sickeningly at the thought of calling it off at this late date. It had been months in the planning, venues booked, hundreds of guests, truckloads of fresh flowers, all the food ordered.
Not only that, but her work had been dragged into it, too. Her regular posts of luxury holiday destinations for Wander World magazine were popular with readers and her followers on Instagram. Her boss, Pete, seeing an opportunity, had talked her into piggybacking an advertising campaign onto her wedding and honeymoon. Now she had sponsors with a stake in her marriage. There were whispers of her being an influencer and speculation that she could start her own fashion label of resort wear.
While the dressmaker made tiny, last-minute adjustments on the dress, Lilou tried to push her doubts about James aside. They were perfect for each other, everyone said so. Both loved travel and fashion, theater and dining out.
She turned her side to the mirror and took another snap of her profile but found no pleasure in it. Take away the lifestyle and what did she and James have in common? She didn’t even know if he wanted to have children. Whenever Lilou tried to discuss it, he changed the subject, or dismissed it, saying there was plenty of time to think about that. How had she let their relationship go this far without knowing for sure?
The absolute worst, though, was how he’d treated Auntie May after meeting her today for the first time. Lilou had never pretended to be wealthy but somehow James must have thought she was. He’d seen instantly that May was far down the social scale compared to his family and had done nothing to hide his disdain. Lilou would not have believed his behavior if she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes.
Her phone rang. James. Maybe he was calling to apologize.
“Hi,” she said. “How did your presentation go?”
“Fine,” James said, brushing that aside. “We have a slight problem. Mother just called. She’s been going over the accommodations at the resort. There’s a limited number of rooms available.”
“I thought she trimmed the guest list to allow for that,” Lilou said. When Jean had offered to take care of booking the venues, Lilou had been grateful because she was so busy with work. What she hadn’t foreseen was losing control over her own wedding.
“Yes, but my brother is able to come after all, which means there isn’t a room for your aunt,” James said. “I hope Mabel won’t mind too much.”
“Her name is May,” Lilou said, her barely suppressed anger flaring. “What do you mean, she doesn’t have a room?”
“Mother is distraught, of course, and I’m devastated, but nothing can be done,” James went on blandly. “We’ll put her in a nearby hotel.”
“Auntie May has barely been out of state much less out of the country,” Lilou argued. “I particularly wanted her in a room next to mine in case she needs me. Can’t your brother stay at another hotel?”
“He’s my brother,” James said. “Mabel is just an aunt, after all.”
“Her name is May,” Lilou repeated through gritted teeth. “She raised me. She’s like a mother to me.”
“Darling,” James drawled. “Be reasonable.”
“You be reasonable,” she said as evenly as she could, conscious of the dressmaker listening. “My side of the guest list is minuscule compared to yours.”
“I’m afraid it’s too late,” James said. “It’s already done.”
His mother had orchestrated this, Lilou realized suddenly. Jean had fabricated a reason for May not to stay at the main hotel so as not to bring down the tone of the wedding. Maybe she was even hoping May wouldn’t come. Worse, James was going along with it, putting his mother’s wishes over Lilou’s love for her aunt.
“If Auntie May can’t come then I’m not coming, either.” Her heart racing, she clicked the phone off with a savage jab.
“I have to go,” she said to the surprised dressmaker and climbed down from the dais. Simba ran after her as she hurried to the changing room and began to struggle out of the dress.
James called back immediately. “Now, Lilou, I know you didn’t mean it.” He spoke soothingly as if talking a crazy woman down from the ledge. “Of course, Mabel is coming and you are, too. The other hotel is right next door.”
“Fine, I’ll book myself in there, too.”
“You can’t. You’re in the wedding party.”
“If you don’t care about Auntie May, then you don’t care about me,” she said dangerously. “Simple fix. We don’t get married.”
“Of course, I care about your aunt,” James said sharply, irritated now. “It’s too late to cancel the wedding. Mother’s been working on this for months. Everything is paid for.”
Paid for. Was that all that mattered to him?
“Tell your mother that May is keeping her room in the hotel,” Lilou said.
It was an ultimatum. If he agreed, would she go through with the wedding? Or was it already too late? His attitude toward Auntie May had caused something to shift inside her. Could she fall out of love this quickly? Had she ever really been in love with him? What was love? Did she even know what it felt like? Surely not this.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Lilou,” James said. “It’s only a hotel room.”
“Wanting the woman who raised me to be shown consideration and respect is not ridiculous,” she said. “My feelings are not ridiculous. May gets the room next to mine or I can’t marry you.”
“No one walks out on me, especially a hick farm girl,” James snapped. “You’ll make me look a fool.”
So now it was a tossup whether James was more worried about her origins, or how he would look getting dumped. Not, Don’t leave me, I love you, I can’t live without you. All her doubts vanished in an instant. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen him for what he was before now—a self-centered, entitled, narcissistic jerk.
“We’re through.” Lilou hung up again.
She was trembling all over, her hands shaking. In a state of shock, she managed to undo the side zipper and step out of the dress. What was she going to do now? Her future was suddenly a big blank. The thought of going back to work made her groan. The whole office at the travel magazine had made a massive fuss over the event. A bridal shower, ladies’ night out, a sendoff party. She tried to imagine herself explaining to their astonished faces. “James and his parents were mean to my aunt.”
She shouldn’t care what other people thought and someday she might be able to laugh this off. But, right now, with her beautiful dress in a puddle on the carpet, she couldn’t face the explanations, the pity, the remarks behind her back.
Lilou reached for her phone again.
“Pete, I need another assignment right away,” she said when her boss picked up. Briefly, she explained the situation.
Pete expressed words of shock and sympathy and then checked the roster of travel journalists. “All I’ve got is Zach Wilkie’s next trip,” he said. “He just broke his leg, rock climbing in Colorado, and can’t go. But his next gig is nothing like what you’re used to covering. Plus, it’s short notice. You would have to be in Montana the day after tomorrow.”
“I’ll take it,” she said recklessly, even though Zach specialized in the kind of extreme sports she couldn’t even peek at through splayed fingers. “Please tell me it’s not base jumping or free diving.”
“Nothing that extreme,” Pete said. “The owner and tour operator, Garrett Starr, is the son of an old friend of mine. I promised I’d send a top journalist to do a feature on Garrett’s next adventure tour. I haven’t even had a chance yet to tell him that Zach can’t come. You’d be saving my behind but, as I say, it’s really not up your alley.”
“It’ll be fine,” Lilou said firmly, before Pete could change his mind or talk her out of it. “Where is it again?”
“Montana,” Pete said. “The trip is—”
“A godsend,” she said. “Please, Pete. I really need to get out of town.” Before the entire Thurgood family brought pressure to bear for her to go through with the wedding. Because that was exactly what would happen.
“Okay, I’ll have to double-check with Garrett but if he says yes, then you’ve got it.” Pete paused and when he spoke again, his voice softened. “Are you sure about breaking off your engagement? Can’t you talk to James, work things out?”
Lilou went quiet. Calling off the wedding was a drastic step but she’d tried to talk to James and he wouldn’t listen. If she were honest with herself, she’d been ignoring warning signs that all wasn’t well between them for some time. It had taken him rejecting Auntie May for Lilou to see him clearly. Now it was hard to believe she’d ever loved him. Maybe she hadn’t. Maybe she’d simply been swept off her feet, dazzled by living the high life. She was confused and unhappy, uncertain about what it all meant. All she knew was, feeling the way she did, she couldn’t marry him.
“I’m sure,” she said. “Today was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Please don’t tell anyone at work yet. I’ll explain when I get back, after I’ve had time to process.”
“I won’t say anything,” Pete said. “But cancelling a society wedding is news. Your followers will be looking for constant updates, not to mention the expectations of your sponsors. They’ll have to be told.”
Oh no, she’d forgotten about the sponsors. “I’ll break it to my followers. I’m really sorry about screwing up the advertising campaign. What will happen if we break the contract?”
Pete made a grunting sound of frustration. “They’ll have to be compensated.”
“You can take it out of my salary.”
“Forget it, I pushed you into it,” Pete said. “I’ll text you the details of Zach’s assignment.” He paused. “I’m sorry things didn’t work out for you. Take care.”
“I will, and thank you.” Lilou slumped onto the cushioned bench in the dressing room and put her head in her hands.
Her engagement was over. Shouldn’t she feel something—relief, anger, grief? Anything would be preferable to this cold, empty numbness.
Simba pawed at her leg and she gathered him into her arms, holding him close for the comfort in his warm, furry body. “It’ll be all right, sweetie,” she whispered, trying desperately to convince herself. “I’ve still got you. We’ll get through this together.”
End of Excerpt