Zoe Plum stood in front of St. Dominic’s church doors, greeting each wedding guest with a brilliant smile as they arrived, checking their names off a list on her tablet. However, she wasn’t exactly smiling on the inside. Internally, Zoe was pacing and biting her nails, cringing at each new arrival that wasn’t the guest she was hoping for: Levi Dolson. And boy was he going to hear it from her when he finally did arrive.
Just that morning, Levi had been upgraded from guest to groomsman—that’s if he got there in time. The original groomsman had been hit with food poisoning late the night before—which Zoe suspected was more than likely a case of nerves, since everyone was on edge that day.
This wasn’t a usual joyful wedding day. Her clients might have been the ones tying the knot, but it felt like the only thing in knots were Zoe’s insides. No one would have guessed it, however, as she welcomed people up the steps and through the double doors with a confident smile.
Zoe could act like she was going for a facial while a zombie apocalypse was breaking out around her. But between each new arrival, she cast nervous glances down the street, wanting to throttle the fill-in groomsman who was running dangerously late.
A glance at her watch told Zoe there were fifty minutes until “I do” time. She just wished that when Levi did arrive, it would be on the back of a white stallion. Not because she secretly wanted a Prince Charming—that ludicrous fantasy was the last thing she dreamed of. It was because the bride, Juliet, had insisted on riding into the sunset—or at least the mid-afternoon blazing sun—with her new husband after the ceremony. Unfortunately, her assistant informed Zoe that the beautiful horse she’d originally booked had come down with a case of acute synovitis.
Summer was a busy time for the poor creature, what with the influx of tourists to show around San Francisco. The strain of pulling the cart for all those extra customers had put poor Puccini out of commission for the rest of the summer, and most annoyingly, for the wedding Zoe had been planning for the last year.
But it would all be okay. No. It was going to be perfect, just like every other event that Zoe had ever been hired to plan. She wasn’t the best event planner in the city for nothing. And after all the added challenges that day had presented so far, she was really going to prove that by pulling it off without a hitch—or a hitch that anyone would know about.
The Fisher-Wells wedding was one of the more extravagant weddings she’d planned for that year, with a commission to match. Once it was done, she would finally have the rest of the down payment to buy her own place. A place to call her own, instead of renting a small apartment barely big enough for her. She couldn’t wait to feel like she owned a little piece of the world.
What was better, she could finally prove to her mother that she could support herself without a man—as often as her mother tried to convince Zoe otherwise. Because if you could afford to buy a place in San Francisco, there was no doubt you had your life together. It was her final puzzle piece to having complete independence, that grown-up feeling of being a homeowner.
“Code red! Code red!” a panicked voice screamed out.
Zoe turned from the guests filtering in through the church’s entrance. The disembodied voice carried around the side of the building and into the foyer. The guests exchanged worried glances.
Inwardly, Zoe cringed, but she maintained her poise. She smiled, like everything’s cool. Nothing to see here.
A moment later, a plump blonde appeared at the bottom of the church stairs, ponytail swinging behind her, sensible flats slapping the walkway. When she saw Zoe’s expression, she visibly gulped.
Zoe gave her assistant, Natalie, a quirk of her eyebrow and nodded her head inside. Obviously chastised, Natalie mimicked Zoe’s “natural” air of confidence as she entered the church, past people congregating around the guest book. They ducked into a quiet vestibule so they were out of earshot.
The epitome of serenity, Zoe began rearranging a bouquet of roses on a carved wooden table. However, her insides had cinched together like corset strings.
“We can’t handle a code red right now,” she told her assistant. “We already have an MIA flower girl, a sick priest, a wild four-legged ring bearer, in-laws at each other’s throats, and a sweaty congregation.”
As usual, Zoe was the first to arrive at the venue that morning, and it had taken her breath away. Literally. It had been like stepping into a sauna. The church’s air conditioning blew up the night before, and due to the heat wave that had hit San Francisco that week, no available repairmen could be found in time for the wedding.
After a few emergency calls, Zoe had found industrial fans for rent that had blown the toupee right off the bride’s grandfather. Thankfully the fans came with protective guards so the magical day didn’t end with a magical amputation. That day was about joining two people together, not a finger back to its owner.
The first crisis of the day averted, after that, everything that could go wrong had. So what now, Zoe wondered. “How bad is it?”
“This trumps everything.” Natalie was practically vibrating. She took a deep breath, but it didn’t seem to calm her. It only made her start hyperventilating. “It’s the dress.”
Zoe froze. “What about the dress?”
Natalie hesitated, wincing a little. “It doesn’t fit.”
The rose stem in Zoe’s hand snapped in two. The words echoed through her mind as it emptied of all other concerns. Family feuds she could squelch, flower girls she could track down, rampant dogs she could bring to heel, but this … And with this bride of all brides?
“What do you mean?” Zoe asked. “How can it not fit? It was made for her.”
Zoe hadn’t even moved, but something in her voice made Natalie take a step back. “I-I mean it won’t zip up. We’re talking total back fat blockage.”
Not on my watch, Zoe told herself.
She drew herself up and headed for the office building at the back of the church, or rather, the bride’s temporary room. “We’ll see about that. I’ll make that dress fit if I have to staple her into it.” She imagined this was why corsets were invented, because at the last second, it was easier to make alterations to the body than the dress.
As Zoe skirted around the outside of the church, the afternoon sun beat down on her. And it was only one o’clock. It was bound to get hotter. She just hoped the fans could keep up.
Natalie remained close on her heel, her footsteps on the paved path matching the quick beat of Zoe’s heart. Zoe couldn’t wait until this day was over. Planning the Fisher-Wells wedding had been her biggest professional challenge yet. Amongst the bride’s waffling desires, unrealistic expectations, and last-minute demands, Juliet Fisher had been a bridezilla from start to finish.
But no one deserved a crisis like this on their big day.
As they rounded the side of the building, Zoe hated to ask, “How is she doing?”
Natalie groaned. “Total bride meltdown.”
Zoe had figured as much. She remembered the day the gold-embossed invitations arrived and Juliet’s name had accidentally been placed last to read Wells-Fisher. To say the least, Fisher was not well that day. Somehow that had set the tone for their entire future marriage—something about feeling inadequate and her mother-in-law’s strawberry rhubarb pie. It was all very difficult to understand once she’d broken down into full sobs.
As they made their way to the little office building where the bride was getting ready, Zoe mentally reviewed her to-do list.
Double check on bride’s uncle (last seen nursing flask)
Find flower girl
Cough drops for priest
Leash for Juliet’s golden retriever
She added a new item to the list:
Get bride into dress
Zoe could feel her shoulder muscles relax beneath her stylish cobalt blazer as everything fell into place in her mind. She could get through this day. It was going to be okay. Heck, the year before she’d thrown a party where someone kidnapped dozens of her guests. They might have been of the four-legged variety. But still. After that, she was officially experienced with any disaster an event planner could face. Only, she’d never faced them all at the exact same time. And what was she going to do about that horse?
As Zoe and Natalie approached the separate building, they could already hear muffled screams coming from the other side of the door. They gave each other a look, like Here we go.
Natalie looked downright ill. Zoe figured they didn’t both need to endure the impending abuse. So she turned to her assistant. “On second thought, could you please call around and find a horse for after the ceremony? Do whatever you can. Get me a zebra if you have to.”
Relief caused Natalie’s eyes to roll into her head. She nodded, her ponytail flicking. Another peal of swear words drifted through the door, and she scrambled away as fast as she could.
“Oh, and Natalie?” Zoe called after her. “If that Levi Dolson turns up, send him to me right away.”
Zoe absently wondered what the weight restriction on ponies was, if it came to that. But there would have to be a ceremony before they’d need a horse, and the bride needed a dress before she could walk down the aisle. So tucking one of her stray jet-black locks of hair back into place, Zoe approached the “bride’s room.”
Automatically, she reached inside her utility bridal bag—well, truthfully it was a fanny pack. It may not have been as stylish as a Coach purse, but it was a necessity that no good event planner could do without—it had saved her butt more times than she could shake a bridal bouquet at. Besides, Zoe could rock anything and make it look like she was strutting down the runway. Even a fanny pack.
Unzipping a hidden pouch, she dipped her hand in. Her fingers brushed against super-soft polyester fur, and instantly, she could feel her worries melt away. She held the hidden object reverently, allowing its furry, comforting presence to sooth her. Because who could be upset when they were holding an adorable, lovable, huggable Fuzzy Friend?
The collectible line of stuffed animals was on the top of every child’s Christmas list, and apparently on the list of stressed-out thirty-year-old Japanese-American women too. Or maybe that was just Zoe. While she couldn’t explain it, the cuddly sack of beans was like a private solace to her during the worst of times—and simultaneously her most embarrassing secret.
Predicting a difficult day, she’d come armed with Pretty Puppy, one of her favorites. It was old and well loved, as evidenced by the multiple repairs over the years to seams, new eyeballs, and replacement plastic bean stuffing. It looked uncannily like her last dachshund, Buddy. While he’d died of old age more than a year before, the thought of him still brought those warm memories back.
Zoe missed Buddy. Even now, she still hadn’t moved on. While she continued to volunteer at the San Francisco Dachshund Rescue Center where she’d first adopted Buddy, she sometimes felt pangs, painful reminders of what she was missing in her life ever since he’d left her.
Ironically, she felt no such pangs of regret every time she attended a wedding, nor did she feel like she was missing a groom in her life. Certainly not the one that left her. She was better off on her own. In every way.
Zoe didn’t need a man. There was only one thing a man could do for her and she did a better job of that herself. But that was the benefit of being a Pure Pleasure sex toy representative—an arsenal of free vibrators at her disposal.
She sold the popular toy line as a side business by hosting Pure Pleasure parties, pulling in an average of two thousand dollars a month. But the best part was the incredible discount and free samples that came along with the job. Which was a lifesaver, since Zoe was convinced she had a higher-than-normal sexual appetite—the amount of batteries she bought on a regular basis could attest to that.
She didn’t only exude sexuality, she studied sex, understood sex, taught sex secrets and tips, threw sexucation parties to sell merchandise. Zoe was a sexpert in practically every way. Except, of course, for one tiny detail: She didn’t have sex.
As she gave her Fuzzy Friend a final squeeze, she took a deep breath, preparing for what lay on the other side of that door before finally knocking.
“What!?” came a sharp reply.
Zoe braced herself and turned the handle. She cracked the door open just wide enough to check for airborne shoes or bouquets aimed at her.
When she saw the coast was clear, she poked her head inside and found a cluster of brightly colored bridesmaids, one for every color of the rainbow. They were huddled in the middle of the reception office, the desk and chairs pushed to the side of the room to make space for the wedding party.
“Can I come in?” Zoe asked.
At the sound of her voice, the rainbow turned in unison and seemed to part, revealing a billowing white tulle cloud in the middle. However, when Juliet spun away from the mirror to face Zoe, her expression looked as tempestuous as a hurricane. And she’d looked like she’d been through one too.
Mascara ran down her cheeks in black streaks from a pair of puffy eyes. Wisps of hair escaped her veil and clung to her sweaty cheeks. Her dress sagged off her body, half-zipped up. Her maid of honor struggled to hold it up while Juliet’s body shook with sobs.
Zoe didn’t skip a beat. “Look at you!” she gushed. “You look beautiful.” Which was probably the biggest lie she’d ever told in her life, and in a church, no less—which was fine, since she’d always assumed she was going to hell anyway.
While she wasn’t normally one to hold her opinions back, there were times that demanded truth and times that demanded an outright bald-faced lie. This was one of those times.
“No, I don’t!” Juliet wailed, wiping her reddened nose on a tissue. “I can’t go through with it. I’m calling the whole thing off.”
“Why? What’s wrong?” Zoe dared a few steps into the room. She needed to diffuse the situation, brush it off as though this kind of thing happens all the time—which unfortunately it did. But why, oh why did it have to happen to Juliet?
Juliet spun to face the floor-standing mirror again, elbowing her maid of honor out of the way. “Just look at my dress. It’s a disaster! It doesn’t fit.”
She tugged at the beaded bodice futilely before giving a little stomp of her silk heel. Her bodice shifted and began to slip down again. The maid of honor lunged and held it up to prevent an accidental strip-show.
Zoe crossed the office full of tense bridesmaids. “I’m sure the zipper’s just stuck. Let me have a look.”
“See? I told you it was the zipper,” Juliet snapped at the girl in the orange dress, then to Zoe she said, “I told her it was the zipper. She didn’t believe me.”
Zoe grabbed the two pieces of unzipped fabric at the back and pulled them together. Extra hands joined in the battle, tugging on the dress. As they were stifled, Zoe could feel beads of sweat form along her brow in the stifling, air-conditioning-less room.
Juliet sucked in, turning red, then purple, then blue. When she’d turned every color of her bridesmaids’ dresses, it became obvious that Natalic was right. It wasn’t going to close. Zoe stepped back to catch her breath.
She frowned at the gown. “Hmmm.”
Juliet eyed her in the mirror. “Hmmm? What is that supposed mean? That doesn’t sound like a good ‘hmmm.’ Like ‘Hmmm, what kind of ice cream do I want tonight?’” she said sarcastically.
Zoe thought ice cream was likely the source of their dilemma. “It doesn’t look like the zipper’s the problem. But it will be all right,” she added quickly. “We’ll just have to make some emergency modifications to the design.”
“How did this happen?” Juliet gripped her half-updo and tugged at her brown locks, making it more of a half-undo—yet, one more thing to fix. Her face screwed up. “It’s probably the seamstress’s fault,” she spat.
Zoe was certain the seamstress wasn’t to blame, but she wasn’t about to suggest that in case Juliet started to cry again and they lost what little makeup they had left.
“Don’t worry. These things can happen before the big day. It’s totally not your fault at all.”
“Of course it’s not,” Juliet said. “Stupid stress.”
Assessing the expensive wedding dress again, Zoe ran through several options in her head like flipping through a wedding-dress catalogue. The whole room seemed to lean forward, awaiting her verdict. Juliet watched Zoe’s reflection in the mirror, looking hopeful.
Zoe nodded. “I can totally make this work. But it’s going to take stabbing several holes on either side of the zipper. How do you feel about a corset-style back?”
She dug through her fanny pack and drew out an emergency roll of thick, white silk ribbon and a small pair of scissors. Fanny-pack to the rescue!
Juliet’s hopeful look darkened. “You want to ruin my dress?”
“Would you rather cancel the wedding and wait for a few months? And what’s more important about today? The dress? The perfect ceremony? An equal number of groomsmen to bridesmaids? This specific location?”
“But it had to be this church,” she whined. “My parents got married in this church.”
“I know. I totally get it.” Grabbing a tissue from her fanny pack, she dabbed at the mascara streaks on the bride’s cheeks. “And we made it work, didn’t we? Now we’ll make the dress work too.”
Emotions always ran high leading up to the big day, and a good wedding planner knew how to maintain perspective, to be empathetic but remain neutral. Zoe could see the bigger picture. She was objective. She didn’t get wrapped up in all the fantasy of romance and love. It was all bullshit anyway.
Forget the excitement of the day, the silk dress, the gardenia arrangements, the old family tortoiseshell kanzashi comb passed down by a proud mother. Because once you stripped it all away, there was just a man and a woman, and no amount of planning, organizing, and dreaming was going to make him walk down that aisle if he changed his mind. There were some things you couldn’t control—like when her groom hadn’t been waiting on the other end of that aisle for her. He’d been a no-show.
But Zoe knew better now, of course. She’d walked away a stronger person, more level-headed. And because of it, she could organize the best damned wedding a bride could ever dream of—at least that was in her control. She was going to make the Fisher-Wells wedding happen, come heat wave or missing groomsman.
“Today isn’t about all the details,” she told Juliet. “It’s about getting married to the man you love. This is just the first day. It’s the rest of your lives that really matter.”
Whenever Zoe put it like that, it usually brought any errant bride back down to earth, because ultimately, their wedding day was about their union with the man they loved. Right?
Juliet’s eyes, however, were still lit with an argument. Like when she’d argued about keeping the same venue even with the heat wave and lack of air conditioning. Like she’d argued about wanting to push her already-strained budget to accommodate the additional three tiers on the wedding cake. Like she’d argued about the first two dresses that seemed perfect to Zoe but Juliet ultimately ended up selling on eBay.
Finally, Juliet let out a breath like she’d been defeated. “Fine. I suppose. Do what you need to do.” She turned her back to Zoe and faced the mirror.
Zoe checked her watch. Thirty-nine minutes until go-time. She’d have to make quick work of the designer dress.
She began to cut holes into the back of the dress on both sides of the zipper, careful to hide them beneath the folds of the ruching detail. Then with long, deft fingers, she began to thread the silk ribbon through the holes, crisscrossing them in a corset-style.
When Zoe had threaded the last hole, she instructed the bridesmaids to hold the bride steady. “Brace yourself,” she told Juliet. Heaving on the ribbon, she cinched it tight, sucking Juliet snuggly into the dress.
The bride gasped with each jerk. Zoe grunted as she yanked and pulled, maintaining tension until she could put the final bow in place. Then she thought better of it and added a double knot.
Wiping her brow, Zoe stepped back to admire her handiwork. “There. That’s better, isn’t it?” she panted. “I think it adds a certain sexiness to it, don’t you?”
The bridesmaids parted. Hesitantly, Juliet turned her back to the mirror and looked over her shoulder. Her scrutinizing eyes roved up and down the laced ribbon, eventually softening. After a few moments, it was clear she was unable to find another argument, and the collection of colorful bridesmaids released their held breaths.
Zoe had to admit, it looked pretty damn good. Unless you knew it was supposed to be a zip-up dress, you couldn’t even tell. As she stared at her bride’s reflection in self-congratulations, she caught a glimpse of something white streak across the mirror. Her eyes focused on the reflection of the room’s open window as another white object soared by.
She spun just in time to see it clearly: white doves. Sure, they could be any old white doves. It was the outdoors, after all. But considering how the day was going so far, she just knew they were the white doves that were prepared for the newlywed’s grand exit. The white doves that were supposed to be waiting in their cages around the side of the church.
Juliet stiffened. “What? What is it? Is the fabric ripping?” The tulle skirt swished as she twisted this way and that to see what was wrong.
“No! It’s nothing. I just thought I saw a cloud outside,” Zoe lied. “I would hate for the weather to turn on us.”
“Oh, no! I hope it’s not going to rain.” Juliet gathered her skirts and rushed toward the window.
Zoe lunged to block the way, throwing her arms out. She couldn’t let Juliet see the doves and come up with yet another reason to call off the wedding. “No! I … I think I saw the groom outside. I wouldn’t look if I were you.” She shooed the bride away. “Bad luck and everything.”
And they certainly didn’t need any more of that.
The door burst open. Natalie practically fell into the room, a feather clinging to her bangs. She was wheezing for air after clearly running all the way there. Her wide eyes fell on Zoe, and she seemed to make an attempt—however poor—to act natural.
Zoe suppressed an eye roll. She was going to have to give that girl some acting lessons in cool.
“Sorry to interrupt, but—”
Zoe held up a hand before she could finish that sentence. The white feather waving in her hair said enough. “No, not at all. Perfect timing.” She threw on a brilliant smile. “Can you please touch up the bride’s hair and makeup for me? We’ve only got”—she checked her watch again—“thirty-three minutes.”
As Zoe headed for the door, Natalie clung to her arm. “But the—”
“I know.” Zoe plucked the feather out of her hair. “I’ve got everything under control.”
Grasping the door handle, Zoe yanked it open, ready to deal with the next disaster. As it swung open, violent gusts of wind flapped in her face, feathers tickling her cheek and stirring her long hair.
Zoe cried out. She threw her hands up, swatting at anything that might come near. When the flurry in front of her disappeared and she could finally open her eyes, she saw two more doves escaping, headed east on Bush Street.
“What’s wrong?” Juliet demanded. She turned to look just as Natalie held the eyeliner to her lid, effectively leaving a thick ebony streak across her face.
If the bridesmaids had noticed Zoe’s feathered attacker, they were all too scared to say anything to their friend.
Zoe managed to rearrange her face into fake outrage. “Who put the rose topiary out here?” She gestured to the front steps. “This isn’t where it was supposed to go. Do I have to do everything around here?”
Juliet rolled her eyes at Zoe’s dramatics. “It’s okay. They’re just flowers. You know, you’re kind of high strung.”
Zoe grit her teeth. Look who’s talking, she thought, but managed to give her a confident look. “I’m here to make sure your wedding is perfect.”
“Everything is perfect.” Now that the most recent meltdown had been avoided, it seemed Juliet was the perfect picture of a blushing bride. “So long as you have the horse for after the ceremony, that is. You do, don’t you?”
Zoe quirked her eyebrow at Natalie in question. But she gave a subtle shake of her head. Zoe’s smile only wavered a little. “Absolutely. You can count on me.” Although how she was going to pull it off, she wasn’t sure.
As she turned to leave, Natalie called out, “Oh Zoe! I almost forgot. Levi Dolson is waiting for you in the foyer.”
“Thank you. I’ll take care of it.” She shut the door behind her to go wrangle a seriously late groomsman and some damn birds. Yet another thing to put on the list for the day. Bird herding.
She found it strange that Natalie hadn’t checked on the birds herself. After a year of working together, her assistant still hadn’t learned to take a little initiative. Today, however, she seemed worse than ever, like instead of rising to the challenge, she was adding to it. How could so many things possibly go wrong with one event?
Zoe decided to take the shortcut through the sanctuary and nave. There wasn’t much time to waste. Her heels clicked steadily on the hardwood floor, echoing off the vaulted ceiling.
“High strung,” my ass, she thought. She was nothing if not level-headed, cool, and collected. Her emotions were always in check. At least, they had been ever since her own wedding day. That day itself, however, was an entirely different story. But who could blame her?
Since then, she’d vowed never to let herself lose control like that again. Especially not over a man. Instead, when she felt her temperature rise, her emotions start to bubble to the surface, she pushed them down. Deep, deep down. She imagined bottling them up and screwing on the top. Which sounded perfectly healthy, right?
Zoe never let her bottle-o-crazy get too full, however. She had a way of safely releasing the built-up pressure. Sure, it cost her a fortune in batteries, but what better way to prevent herself from blowing her top than … well, blowing her top?
To everyone else, she appeared tranquil, calm beneath that layer of ice. No one could make waves in waters they couldn’t touch. More than one bitter man she’d turned down over the years had called her an ice queen. And because she was just so cool, they never had to know just how much it hurt. No one had to know what went on beneath her smooth, hard surface.
Marching through the church, she shooed doves down from curtain rods, from St. Mary’s shoulder, and away from the topiaries. So far, she’d counted twelve feathered fugitives. The more she chased toward an open window or swished out a nearby exit, the more Zoe found her cool starting to thaw.
At least one problem was about to be solved. Her substitute groomsman had finally arrived and not a moment too soon. But when Zoe reached the foyer, chasing yet another dove away, there was no groomsman.
There was, however, a man in his mid-thirties, wearing ripped jeans and a wrinkly T-shirt. His hair stuck up in a blond tangle of gelled curls, mashed up on one side like he’d just rolled out of bed.
He turned at the sound of her footsteps, a dreamy smile lighting up his unshaven face, like he’d just stumbled out of his bedroom and not into a church.
For a second, she hoped the man was just sleepwalking and needed directions back to his bed, but then he said the words she dreaded to hear.
“Zoe Plum? I was told you’re looking for me.” He held out a hand. “Levi Dolson.”
Copyright © 2017 Casey Griffin