Undressed

By: Heather MacAllister

Prologue


AT 9:20 P.M. on a Tuesday night, after trying on forty-three wedding dresses over three bridal-salon appointments during which her entourage of eight consumed several bottles of domestic sparkling wine, Cara Brantley at last found her perfect wedding gown.

Beth Ann Grakowski, aka Elizabeth Gray of Elizabeth Gray Bridal Salon in Rocky Falls, Texas, lived for such moments. The look of a dream matching reality…followed by the sentimental tears…the happy smiles…the hugs…the healthy profit when a designer gown sold…she loved it all. Someday, it would be her dream matching reality, her sentimental tears, her happy smile, her fantasy wedding financed by years of hard work…but until then, by golly she was going to make sure as many Texas brides got their happily-ever-after storybook wedding dress as she could.

On the way to her office to get the paperwork started, Beth snagged a leftover bottle of champagne for a private, self-congratulatory toast.

“Nooooo!” A wail echoed through the salon.

Beth Ann froze. Her clients were having a happy moment, the happy moment. There should be no wailing during happy moments.

“How could that have happened?” Mrs. Brantley’s voice rose.

Beth nearly dropped the credit card that would let Cara Brantley walk down the aisle in a strapless, crystal-encrusted mermaid gown designed by Georgia Hanover.

“It’s ruined!” sounded clearly through the wall Beth’s office shared with the large dressing room at the back of the salon.

A shudder rippled through her. Please don’t let it be the Hanover gown. She visualized rips. She visualized a string of beading cascading to the floor. She visualized Cara’s mother realizing that the number on the price tag was a 7 and not a 1 and quickly swiped the credit card.

Drawing a deep breath, she returned to the fitting room where she’d left Cara, her mother, her sister, her grandmother, assorted bridesmaids and the videographer Mrs. Brantley had hired to record a video scrapbook. Cara’s mother held the camera as she, Cara and the videographer stared at a tiny screen.

In the background, Beth heard the ebb and flow of a vacuum cleaner.

“Do you hear that?” Mrs. Brantley shouted as whoever was running the vacuum cleaner in the tux shop next door banged it against the shared wall during each pass over the floor.

Oh, yes indeed, Beth heard that. William. She was going to strangle him. She’d told him that the Brantleys had insisted on an after-hours appointment so the salon would be empty and nothing would interfere with the recording.

He knew, he knew that sound carried between the two back dressing rooms of their shops. She’d considered putting soundproof padding in, or something, but that would mean a disruption in business and, well, she didn’t want to admit it, but she liked to eavesdrop on an occasional male conversation in the tux shop’s dressing room. She’d been known to pick up a few tips on what styles men found attractive. Once or twice…okay, maybe more, she’d steered a bride away from a certain style based on a snippet of overheard conversation.

William listened, too. Every so often, hadn’t he given her a heads-up if a bride had a concern about a dress?

Beth waved everyone outside the dressing room and into the main area of the salon where three carpeted pedestals were positioned in front of a bank of mirrors. Before following them, she pounded once on the dressing-room wall with her fist. The vacuum whined to a stop. “I’ll talk to you later,” she said in the empty room.

The group had gathered by the sofas and cushy club chairs available for waiting fathers or others who shouldn’t be privy to the sight of the bride struggling into complex underwear.

“Listen!” Mrs. Brantley ordered dramatically.

The videographer held out the camera and Beth dutifully gave her attention to the tiny screen. Sure enough, she heard the vacuum cleaner start up on the recording. “I do hear a slight hum.”

“Slight hum?” Mrs. Brantley was in full meltdown mode. After years in the business, Beth was extremely familiar with the signs. “That ‘slight’ hum has ruined the video scrapbook. The chapter on selecting the bride’s dress is second only to the wedding itself. The look of awe and joy on her face when Cara knew she was wearing The Dress brought tears to my eyes. But can we hear what she said? No. No, because of all the noise.”

As the bride’s mother vented, Beth tried to figure out what to say. It wasn’t as though she could dictate to another store’s cleaning crew. But she’d tried. Oh, how she’d tried. The truth was that William Seeger, owner of Tuxedo Park Formal Wear next door, was also her business partner.

“The vacuuming has stopped, Mrs. Brantley. Why don’t you re-create the special moment now.”

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