Authors: Rachel Branton
Tags: #lds, #Christian, #karen kindgsbury, #Romantic Suspense, #ariana, #Romance, #Suspense, #a bid for love, #clean romance, #dee henderson
I bent to pick up my backpack, but Gage beat me to it. “Allow me.”
I let him play it up. If we were really in love, he’d probably do that and more for me. A lump of something heavy formed in the pit of my stomach, but I tried not to notice.
Calvin led us up a wide, slightly curving staircase with plush red carpet that matched the lobby. It was ostentatious rather than elegant, but it fit the purpose of the place. “Here are your rooms,” Calvin said. “There’s a door between them.” I didn’t see Gage’s room, but mine had a heart-shaped tub in the corner of the room, surrounded by sheer pink drapes.
“Thanks, Calvin.” Gage set down my backpack inside the door, and the men disappeared into the other room. I locked the connecting door and lay down on the bed.
Now that I was alone, more doubts assailed me. What was I doing? Gage was right—this was insane.
My phone vibrated, and I saw it was my mother—again. She’d called already five times during the past few hours. I’d have to text her and Lily both to let them know I was okay but still not going through with the wedding. The wedding to Julian anyway. I wouldn’t add the part about Gage until after the deed was done.
I typed out the message, sent it, and shut off the phone. I sat staring at the ceiling, tears leaking from my eyes.
How could I have been so wrong about you?
A knock on the door made me start. I jumped to my feet. “Who is it?”
“Avery. Calvin sent me. May I come in?”
I relaxed, and it was only then I realized I’d been expecting my mother or Julian. But even if they suspected I’d come to Vegas, they’d never be able to find me in a city this size.
I opened the door to an Asian woman whose sleek, exotic beauty made me feel colorless and frumpy.
She smiled. “You are exactly as Calvin described you. Come, I know just the right gown.” She spoke perfect English, with the barest hint of an accent. I could speak a little French, but no way would my French ever be as good as her English, and I bet I couldn’t even speak two words in whatever Asian language she’d been born to.
I followed her down the stairs and into an oblong room with two long rows of dresses. She went to the end on the right side. “I found this in Utah,” she said, taking one from the rack. “I buy used dresses all over the States, but many aren’t traditional. Most brides who come here think less is best. And sometimes it works for them, you know? Other times, well, you wouldn’t believe some of the awful dresses we have here. But every now and then I find a dress too beautiful to pass up. Classical, elegant.” She pulled off the plastic. “Do you like it?”
The white satin gown had lace and pearls only on the bodice, and the volume and length of the train were far less than the dress I’d chosen, but the cut was nearly identical. My mother would say that its plainness was beneath my status, but I knew this was a dress that wouldn’t overshadow my pale features. I reached out to touch the bodice.
“Don’t you like it?” A hint of disappointment tinged Avery’s voice.
“It’s exactly what I would have picked out.”
She smiled. “I knew it. I have a matching veil, too. Calvin says you’re here alone and that I’m to come up and help you dress when it’s time. Is that right?”
Tears sprang to my eyes before I could stop them. Lily should be here.
No. None of this was real.
“I can do it myself, if it’s too late.”
“Oh, I don’t get off until one. And that’s early.” Avery laughed, a glad sound.
“Then, yes. Thank you.”
“We have other dresses, too. For a night out.”
She led me to the other row where several feet of colored dresses hung in clear plastic sheaths. “Not as much call for bridesmaids’ dresses, and even less for dinner dresses, but I have a few. Your hair is more blond than anything else, and with your coloring and blue eyes, I think this one will look the best. Many people think strawberry blondes shouldn’t wear vibrant colors, but I think it’s only a matter of knowing which color to wear.”
She held up the dress. It was a simple thing, with a high, gathered neckline that I didn’t much like and more gathering on the sides that caused the material across the stomach to fall in gentle folds. Probably going to make me look like a small cow. The only thing that attracted me was the vibrant blue, which made me think of a warm spring day at the beach.
“It’ll make your eyes stand out—I promise,” she assured me.
“It’s fine,” I said, because it really didn’t matter. I wasn’t here to impress Gage with this borrowed dress. The money would be enough.
“You go on up and bathe then. I’ll come up with the dresses in a while. Will that be all right?”
I escaped without another word, glad to be away from the room of dresses, which to me radiated lost dreams. A wedding in Vegas without my sister or my friends—I’d truly reached bottom.
Not for long. Tomorrow I would be on my way as my own woman, able to take care of my little sister, the baby she carried, and all those young girls she’d picked up along the way. Those girls wouldn’t have to marry to make ends meet or work dangerous or demoralizing jobs. Not if I did this right.
I took a long bath, soaking away the grime of the day and wishing I could shut off my mind. Strangely, I was thinking not of Julian but of Gage and how he’d come to my rescue. Who was he really?
When Avery knocked on the door, I wrapped myself in the plush pink robe the hotel had provided and let her in. My face was flushed from the heat of the water.
“All ready to do your hair?”
“I can do it.” I’d planned to let it dry like it was. No need to go overboard.
“If I do it now, it’ll be easier tonight for the ceremony.”
“What will it cost?”
She shook her head. “Comes with the room and the full-service package.”
I decided not to worry about how much that would set me back. “Great.”
She gave me the dress and a pair of blue heels before going to the bathroom with two baskets of assorted hair care and facial products. Pulling out the stool under the vanity, she indicated that I should sit.
When I saw how deftly Avery styled my hair, coaxing the flatness into curls and sweeping it up on my head, I was glad to let her do it.
“You have a lovely neck,” she said. “It’s best to let it show on occasions like this.”
I’d thought that family feature had completely skipped me, but the mirror confirmed her words.
The makeup she put on smoothed out the blotches of my freckles, but there was nothing really to do about them. Avery didn’t seem upset but fell to my eyes with gusto. Blues and browns mixed together. Tiny false eye lashes that looked so natural when they were on that I was surprised. “Now a little bit of mascara to tie them in,” she said. “Then we get you dressed. It’s nearly five, and you’ll need to hurry to make your dinner reservations and the show.”
I hadn’t realized it was so late, or that we’d be eating so early. Back in Flagstaff, our relatives would have arrived, and my mother would be furious. She would have told Julian by now, and I felt a sharp gladness. He wouldn’t feel like laughing now. Even if a part of him were relieved, he’d be upset to have been jilted. Or at least that he’d been discovered.
Avery left the bathroom while I put on my underclothes, but I had to call her back to help me with the dress so I didn’t mess up my piled hair. Too bad I hadn’t insisted on a better dress. It was a shame to let my hair and makeup go to waste.
“There.” Avery finished adjusting the material. “A bit looser than I’d hoped, but still nice.”
I let her push me out of the bathroom to stand in front of the full-length mirror on the wall, thinking that if the waist were any tighter I wouldn’t be able to breathe.
“Well?” Avery asked.
I stared at myself in the mirror, definitely not breathing now. The dress narrowed my waist, while the gathered neckline, not as throat-smothering as I’d first assumed, actually lent me a bit of shape in the bust where I really needed it. Between the color of the dress and the eye shadow, I looked like someone I didn’t know. My mother’s daughter.
“Thank you,” I said.
Avery grinned. “You were easy. You should see some of the ladies I work with.” We laughed together as Avery gathered up her products. “I’ll be back at ten,” she said. “And I promise you will look even better tonight. He won’t be able to take his eyes off you.”
I felt as though she’d kicked me in the gut. Of course he’d be able to take his eyes off me. Gage didn’t love me. We were acquaintances. Or casual friends at the most.
“Do they take pictures?” I asked. “I want to send one to someone.”
“As many as you like. Or want to pay for, rather,” she said with a wink. “But if you want me to take one for free with your camera before you go out tonight, I’ll be downstairs.”
After she left, I went to sit in front of the vanity mirror and tried to dredge up the courage to leave the room. I hoped Gage didn’t laugh, because I felt like an idiot. A nicely dressed, even pretty, idiot, but this was all fake. It would have been better to complete the ceremony in my jeans and drive to Lily’s tonight. Actually, I probably shouldn’t go right to Lily’s. Disowned or not, that would be the first place after Sadie’s that my mother and Julian would look for me.
I’m leaving now,
I told myself. I marched to the bed, put on the heels that Avery had left, and made my way to the stairs. No one was in sight.
My luck didn’t hold. As I followed the curved staircase, a man came into view, hands linked together in front of him as if waiting. He was wearing black dress slacks and a brown blazer despite the heat. Probably another groom about to take the plunge into matrimony. I felt an urge to tell him to go somewhere else for the ceremony, where they could be surrounded by loved ones.
Who was I kidding? He and his fiancée might have brought along their family and friends. Not everyone was here looking for a way around trust fund restrictions. He was probably madly in love.
The man was staring to the point of rudeness, and a flush crawled up my face. That’s the really terrible thing about being a pale, strawberry blonde. It’s hard to hide emotion.
He was handsome, with well-formed features—a square jaw that spoke of strength, a long straight nose, wide forehead, and longish brown hair combed back from his face. I could envision him equally at home in the mountains or at one of my mother’s elegant dinners, where he’d be the focus of attention with those chiseled features. Julian would be annoyed to find me staring.
He smiled, and it transformed him, softening the jaw, and adding warmth to the green eyes. He had very nice teeth. I descended the last few steps, unable to look away. Something in my brain was screaming a warning, but I didn’t understand what it said.
“Nice dress,” he said with obvious appreciation. The deep voice sent a shiver through me. I knew that voice—and those green eyes. This man was Gage.
“Thanks. You—you look different.”
He rubbed his chin. “Calvin wouldn’t leave me alone until I shaved.”
“Well, it’s not as if it’s for real, but I guess he doesn’t know that.”
Gage frowned, and his face became cold, just as the smile had warmed it earlier. “I guess not.”
I felt as if I’d hurt him somehow, but that was ridiculous. I wouldn’t let either of us forget we were in this only for the money. “This is probably costing too much,” I said.
He shrugged. “Not much. Calvin owes me a favor.”
And we weren’t. I took the hint. “Right. So where are we going?”
“Dinner first, and a show. Then dancing if you’re up to it.”
If he knew me better, he wouldn’t have to ask. I was a night person in every sense of the word. I might feel tired now, but as dusk fell and night slid over the town, I would be wide awake and ready for anything. I could dance all night, or read, or go for a walk, or ride Serenity. I adored night.
Just don’t try to wake me up in the morning. There was a reason I’d worked the swing shift at my father’s factory.
“I’m up to it.” I said. “I seem to be starving again.” Stress was obviously good for the appetite.
He offered me his arm, and I took it, my eyes falling again over his face. So absolutely different from the scruffy mountain man who’d befriended Serenity. I’d wanted to see under the hair, and now that I had, I liked what I saw. He was much more attractive this way. He definitely didn’t look like an ex-con.
The pit in my stomach was back, but I ignored it. This town was full of things to do, and I was going to enjoy myself. Having a handsome escort didn’t hurt things one little bit.
The MGM Grand Hotel where we were heading was too far away for us to walk, and I couldn’t exactly climb onto Gage’s bike in the dress, so we called a taxi. The heels were remarkably comfortable, though, and I was already thinking about dancing later. I silently blessed Avery for her choice. I might even name my first child after her someday, provided I survived this adventure long enough to have one.
Because my mother was going to kill me when she caught up with me.
“Is everything okay?” Gage asked as we watched for the taxi.
“Not at all. It’s a beautiful man, isn’t it? I mean night.”
I sighed internally.
Gage grinned at me as if he knew exactly what I’d been thinking. “Beautiful,” he agreed. His grin grew wider as I flushed and looked away.
Thankfully, the taxi arrived, and we drove to the MGM in silence. The place was huge and elegant, and even I, who had run with the cream of Flagstaff society, felt a little awed.
At the Craftsteak restaurant, there was crowd waiting for seating, and when Gage gave his name, the hostess couldn’t find our reservation. She wrote Gage’s name on a sheet of paper and told us there would be an hour wait.
As we left the desk, I noticed two older ladies near the wall staring at Gage and poking each other. One had a round face, bright with blush, and stylish silver hair layered close to her head. The other wore a mournful expression on her thin, sagging cheeks and looked as if she’d forgotten to comb her brown hair after she’d removed her overnight curlers. They were whispering animatedly now behind raised hands, their eyes never leaving us. Maybe they thought Gage was a movie star.