Chapter One

 

“Oh fuck…not again.”

Of all the things to hear from a changing room cubicle, it was hardly the least alarming. It wasn’t even my station, worst luck, but I was going to have to deal with it because, 1.) Morgan had gone on a break and I didn’t know where to, and 2.) If someone was having a heart attack in the Men’s changing area, I wasn’t about to leave them to die. This wasn’t Primark for God’s sake.

(Though, it was BHS, so I wasn’t about to give the poor sod mouth to mouth or attempt surgery with a coat hanger and a box cutter. Tapping on the door and coughing politely was probably going to be my limit).

I tapped on the door, and coughed politely.

The man within the cubicle sighed dramatically.

“Is everything alright, Sir?” I asked. They’d trained us to use that phrase instead of the often more forthright, ‘Are you having a heart attack? And if not what the fuck are you doing?’

“Fine,” he answered, and the door swung open unexpectedly, revealing a tall, blonde man who looked like he’d just lost a fight with a three-piece suit. “Sorry for the umm…language.”

“That’s alright,” I smiled like a crazed cheerleader, “just let me know if you need anything.”

I was about to bound back to my department (Homeware, where no one ever needed medical help – bliss) when he shifted awkwardly and cleared his throat.

“Actually…if you wouldn’t mind giving me an opinion about something?”

“Certainly,” I said, inwardly deciding that my actual opinion was almost certainly going to remain firmly undisclosed (People could be so touchy about the truth, especially when rayon blouses or skinny jeans were involved).

“Would it be rude, not to show up to my ex’s wedding, in…” he checked his watch. “Thirty minutes, even though I RSVP’d…just because my date backed out.”

I knew one day I’d regret never reading Cosmo. I’d just always thought I’d have an STI or a stubborn moustache when that day came.

“I…” I faltered.

“Just ignore me, that was stupid,” he looked down at his Blackberry, clutched in one hand, “it’s just that…my friend’s sister was supposed to go with me, to stop me looking utterly pathetic,” he sighed, “and now she has to go to hospital because her partner’s in labour.”

“Right.” Sales training really hadn’t prepared me for this. “So…you can’t just go alone?”

“She was the love of my life,” he said, “which sounds pathetic, I know, but…she ran out on our wedding, for the man she’s marrying today…and I can’t go on my own.”

That struck a chord. It wasn’t so long ago that I’d been standing in a church, in a dress I was still trying to pay off, waiting for a groom who was never bloody coming.

“Oh,” I muttered.

“Yes, like I said, pathetic,” he looked down at his cuffs, adjusting them awkwardly, “and I spilled coffee on my suit, so now I need to find another one.”

“Well, that I can help with,” I seized on the problem, “give me a minute.”

I left the changing room and went out into the men’s department, looking at the mannequins and comparing them to the colouring of the strange man in the cubicle. I decided on a charcoal grey suit with a white shirt and deep blue tie and took the clothes back to the changing area, finding the man in the middle of removing his waistcoat.

He raised an eyebrow uncertainly.

“Trust me, it’ll look good,” I said as I handed him the hangers.

He looked like he wanted to argue, but he closed the dark green curtain and I heard him shuffle out of the rest of the suit.

“Well…it’s a better fit,” he said, grudgingly.

“Better style too,” I couldn’t resist pointing out.

“Fair point…” he paused. “I’m sorry, I know you were wearing a badge but…”

I felt myself smile. “Annie.”

“Dorian,” he sounded pleased, “and that is my real name.”

“I don’t think anyone would lie about being called ‘Dorian’.”

He opened the curtain and looked at me doubtfully.

“Is this…OK?”

“It’s perfect,” I assured him, and for once I could actually be honest. The blue in the tie brought to life his pale complexion and made his eyes look extra bright.

“Good, maybe I won’t look completely pitiable.”

“Can you really not ask anyone else?” I asked, as I watched him turn and start to pick up the pieces of the discarded, coffee stained, suit.

“Rebecca, that’s my friend’s sister, was really my last hope. I don’t have any female friends and actually finding a date proved a little beyond me.” He folded the unwanted suit trousers neatly and put them back onto their hanger. “There isn’t really…an…alternative,” he faltered and looked at me.

“What?”

“It’s just…I don’t suppose…you could do it?” he asked.

I blinked at him, hoping that he wasn’t asking what I thought he was.

“It would just be for the day,” he put in quickly, “and the wedding’s at the Abbey, it’s just across the square.”

“I’m working,” I said, “also…you’re crazy.”

“I can pay you.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Way to make it not sound like prostitution.”

“Sorry,” he scratched the back of his neck, “it’s just that…I got engaged, again, after Opal broke it off with me…and then a few weeks ago, my new fiancée ran off with someone she met at the Build-a-Bear place…”

“You seem to have bad luck at this.”

“Pretty much,” he smiled slightly, “but I can’t show up to this, with everyone thinking I’m engaged again, and tell them that I’ve been dumped…again.”

“So you want me to pretend to be your fiancée…?”

He looked nonplussed for a second, and then got the prompt. “Claire.”

“And you’ll pay me?” I asked, thinking of all the money I still owed for the wedding-that-wasn’t.

“Two thousand pounds?”  he offered, “and I’ll pay for a dress, shoes…which you can keep.”

“Considerate.” I thought for a moment. I had a friend in Homewares, they’d cover for me while I was gone but…could I really do it?

“Deal,” I held out my hand.

We shook on it and Dorian grinned, relieved.

“So…occasion wear?” he asked.

 

Buying occasion wear in BHS is a bit like putting together a gourmet dinner from stuff bought at Iceland. Obviously you could, but why would you want to?

Although, if you pull it off, and do it well, you’re rewarded with surprised gasps and mild praise. It’s a fine line, but one that I’d walked at every major social event in my life thus far (and with most Christmas dinners).

Dorian and I headed over to the small section of the shop devoted to party dresses and formal wear, right between the seasonal display (currently stocking sugar pink Mother’s Day gifts) and the children’s clothes.

“So…would you like to pick something?” Dorian asked surveying the dresses, which ranged from ‘Gay-divorcee rouge’ to ‘Texan chastity pledge white’.

“You should probably give me a price range first.”

“Right,” Dorian looked dubiously at the dresses, “you’d probably know better than me…maybe…two hundred?”

I looked at him disbelievingly. My Ex, The Disappearing Groom, had gaped at me when I’d suggested spending more than ten pounds on a pair of trousers.

“How are you still single?”

Dorian actually seemed to consider this. “Continuous bad luck?”

I smiled at his tentative good humour, and then started looking around for the dress that I’d been thinking of ever since he’d snatched this crazy plan out of thin air.

(Yes, I had already thought of a dress. Don’t look at me like that. The thing is…sometimes when the weather’s awful, or I wake up late and I’m feeling just a little bit shitty, I like to look at the pretty formal wear. OK? If it’s my day off, and I’m in town, sometimes I go into Marks & Spencer’s and try some on. Not bridal dresses or anything crazy like that. Just…sometimes it’s nice to feel important and glamorous for a while, before you slump off to Greggs and buy enough steak slices to get you through the week).

The dress I eventually found was one that I’d wanted to try on for ages. A strapless midnight blue number with lacy, white underskirts that puff out at the bottom, 1950’s style. Fifty-nine pounds ninety-nine of utter perfection.

“Posh enough?” I asked, thinking of the Abbey and how loaded you’d have to be to get married there.

“It’s nice…just…”

I waited for the other shoe to drop, but Dorian just reached for a blue and white fascinator on a stand and handed it to me.

“Do you need blue shoes?” he asked, “is that still a thing? Matching shoes?”

I tried not to look at him like I thought he was crazy. “I think that will always be a thing, but I have blue shoes on.” I displayed my midnight blue pumps, incongruous beneath my awful nylon uniform trousers. “I just need tights.”

“Excellent. Can I leave you to pick those out? I just realised, we need a ring.”

I looked at him blankly.

“An engagement ring.”

“Oh! Right, obviously,” I pointed towards the accessories department, “jewellery is that way.”

His eyes followed my finger. “I think I’ll pop next door, if you don’t mind?”

“No, of course not,” I said quickly, feeling dread curl in my stomach at the prospect of something from Claire’s Accessories that’d turn my finger green.

“I’ll be back to pay in about fifteen minutes,” he promised, “why don’t you try everything on?”

“Sure.”

“Oh, and, what’s your ring size?”

“O…I think.”

“Terrific,” Dorian smiled nervously, “this is all rather weird isn’t it?”

I smiled back. “Just a bit.”

He went off towards the front doors, leaving me with his new suit, folded in a cloth basket next to the fascinator. I picked up the dress on its hanger and went over to where the tights were hanging in their little packets.

Yvonne was at my side in around a fifth of a second, descending on me like Medusa, the ends of her braids whipping through the air and her Christina Aguilera perfume assailing me unexpectedly.

“Who the bloody hell was that?” she demanded, her hung-over eyes wide under their fresh make-up. Yvonne was my best work friend, and she never seemed to go home, but rather moved between work and clubbing like a stray cat between houses. Today I could see she was still wearing a gold studded bustier under her work shirt.

“You’re supposed to be in Homewares,” I pointed out.

“Oh stuff it, they can find throw pillows without me,” she waved a pink-nailed hand dismissively, “what’s with the personal shopper routine?”

“It’s…a little odd…I met him in the changing rooms…and he needs a date for a wedding today.”

She just looked at me, and I realised that I was competing with the after-effects of a great deal too many shots.

“And I’m going to be his date today,” I explained patiently, “so you need to cover for me.”

She frowned. “Is this Pretty Woman I’ve walked into or something? Is he taking you shopping?”

“Well, Julia Roberts was a prostitute, and I’m just going to an awkward social event, but yes, yes it’s exactly the same thing.” I rolled my eyes.

“Seriously, have you thought this through?”

“Yes. He’s paying me, and I could really use the money.”

She gave me a look.

“I am not a prostitute,” I snapped.

“OK…OK, I’ll cover for you.” She slumped and did her best ‘put upon’ expression.

“I’ll pay you back, promise…I’ll cover you on your birthday.”

She perked up. “Deal,” glancing over my shoulder she said, “he’s coming back.”

Yvonne moved away, heading back to the land of blankets and saucepans, just as Dorian crossed the shop floor and reached me. He offered me a small, black, ring box.

“This, I’m afraid, you don’t get to keep.”

I opened the box, and looked down at the diamond ring in its velvet case. Not a Claire’s zircon, but the real thing, from the jewellers next door.

“Wow,” I said, when my mouth started receiving signals from my brain again.

Dorian ducked his head. “I wanted it to be convincing. Anyway…shall we pay?”

“Um..yes…do you want to use my staff discount? It’s fifteen percent,” I said, feeling suddenly guilty at the huge amount of money he was spending (albeit in the name of his own insane plan).

He looked at me and raised a slight smile. “It’s OK, I think I can cover it.”

Of course he could. He’d just dropped what looked like over eight hundred pounds on a diamond ring. On impulse.

I hoped he wasn’t in the mafia. Or a banker.

As Dorian paid for our clothes, and I skulked by the entrance, avoiding my manager, I thought to myself that there was no way Will was going to believe this when I showed up to work at the café on Monday.

 

We got changed in the toilets at the Burger King up the street. I felt bad about it; if it was my wedding I’d at least want my guests to get ready at Café Nero.

Dorian offered me his arm as we left the restaurant, followed by twelve pairs of curious eyes, and we ran down the street to the Abbey with just two minutes to spare. Everyone looked as fancy as I’d feared they would, and there were very few high street dresses in attendance. There was a small crowd milling around in the entranceway, and I attracted even more curious stares there than I had in Burger King, though these were altogether less friendly.

“Dorian, it’s nice to see you,” said a middle aged woman in a turquoise shift dress that looked like it was decorated with virgin tears and trimmed with braids of mermaid hair. Her opal necklace alone could have paid for my gas bill, and then my flat (providing I took it to the right dealer).

“Meredith,” Dorian submitted to an air kiss, “it’s good to see you again, how’s…”

“Oh, Opal’s nervous, the poor thing,” Meredith turned her chilly blue eyes on me, “and who’s this you’ve bought to my niece’s wedding?”

“Hi, I’m Claire,” I lied, rather well I thought, “Dorian’s fiancée.”

She smiled tightly.

“Lovely. We’ve heard so much about you.”

“All good I hope,” I said.

“Well…” Dorian said, after a silence far longer than anything that could be described as ‘comfortable’, “we should get to our seats.”

We were shown from the door to a pew by a man in a starched uniform that probably cost more than my unused wedding dress.

“Wow, she really hated me,” I said as we sat down.

“Meredith hates everyone.”

“She likes you.”

Dorian barely held back a laugh. “Of the two of us, I am the lesser of two evils today – you’re the one her niece is being compared to.”

“Way to make me feel even more intimidated.”

“Just remember, they’re far more afraid of you, than you are of them.”

“Comforting…by the way, I can’t believe you were going to marry someone named Opal.”

“My name is Dorian,” he pointed out.

“Touché.”

He smothered a laugh and I looked up at the altar. The groom stood there with his best man and groomsmen. Dark haired and reasonably well built, he looked OK, but he wasn’t a patch on Dorian with his Icelandic good looks and Jane Austen charm.

You know, if you liked that kind of thing.

Which I so did not.

Just then, the wedding march started, played by about fifty violins.

“Show time,” Dorian murmured.

I should say, for the wedding aficionados out there, that the Abbey was beautiful: white roses, yellow ribbon, candles, a choir, bloody millions of violins, but none of it compared to Opal-the-bitch-goddess.

Leaving aside the designer dress (probably woven by pixie maidens on the lost isle of impeccable couture) the hairstyle and the flowers – Opal was gorgeous. She was blonde for a start, and tall, not to mention skinny, like a moodily intense Norwegian runway model, only smiling a Katherine Heigl thousand watt smile.

I can honestly say that I didn’t hate her on sight, but only because her gorgeousness travelled
forwards in time a few seconds, making me envious before I even caught sight of her.

I felt ratty, comparatively speaking, in my BHS six-billion-of-a-kind dress. I knew my brown pixie cut was showing mousy roots, and that morning it hadn’t occurred to me to put on any make-up besides lip balm. Tescos own-brand lip balm (‘used bacon grease’ flavour).

I chanced a sideways look at Dorian, and I had to wince, I’d never seen anyone look so destroyed before. Against my better judgement I reached over and took his hand in mine. He jumped a little, then glanced at me, raised a smile that didn’t fool me for a second, and held onto my hand for the rest of the service. Which went on forever. I suppose if you’re getting married at the Abbey, you want to get your money’s worth, but even so, I could feel myself developing deep vein thromboses and bed sores.

By the time Opal kissed Not-as-hot-as-Dorian, I was way past bored and into ‘Doctors surgery waiting room’ levels of mental inactivity.

The bride and groom swept down the aisle together, the choir singing angelically somewhere near the front of the church. Three billion violins sawing away in harmony. We followed them en masse, politely smiling and throwing confetti from the sachets handed to us by the uniformed ushers.

I watched Dorian as he smiled at the few people who acknowledged us. He looked strained. I didn’t blame him. All that anxiety, all the effort to get me here, to show up at all, and Opal hadn’t even seemed to be looking for him.

“That was horrible,” he said, white faced, as we stood to one side of the Abbey, watching a photographer snap pictures of Opal and her bridesmaids.

“Well at least it’s over n…”

“Can we get all the guests in for this one?” called the photographer.

Dorian looked ready to run for it, but we trooped forwards and took our place at the edge of the swath of people. The photographer took the picture, and that’s when I noticed Opal looking over at us.

“She’s looking,” I said out of the corner of my mouth.

Dorian’s eyes went wide. “Really?”

“Yes,” I glanced back at Opal, who was still looking at us. “What do you want to do?”

Dorian was frozen like a rabbit about to be mown down by a (really gorgeous) car.

I took matters into my own hands, slid my arm through his and reached up to kiss the side of his mouth. While he was still blinking at me I led him quickly away from the wedding party and around the corner into a side street.

“That was horrible,” Dorian muttered, once we were well away from the wedding party.

“At least you got through it.”

He looked at me, pale and pinched and miserable.

“Let’s go get a coffee, OK?” I said, pretending he was Yvonne on another one of her ‘how could he give me crabs and run off with my jewellery?’ crying jags. “I’ll pay.”

Of course, in Bath, the home of Starbucks, Café Nero and independent, four-pounds-per-tiny-tourist-loving-cup cafés, the only place I could afford to go was right back to Burger King.

I parked Dorian on a red vinyl chair in the downstairs seating place, subterranean, where no one would see him through the window. I hitched up my fabulous blue skirt and climbed the greasy stairs all the way back to the counter, where I ordered two coffees (sans fancy names) and a paper packet of mini pancakes.

What? Weddings make me hungry. And it wasn’t like I was going to get any cake.

I took the lot downstairs on a tray and watched Dorian empty nine and a half sugar packets into his coffee.

“She looked…stunning,” he said, stirring the brew half-heartedly.

“She is gorgeous,” I offered him a pancake, and he declined, “but…the groom? Nowhere near as hot as you.”

Dorian looked at me, a small smile teasing the corner of his mouth.

“Is it OK if that makes me feel better?”

I nodded.

“I just…I never thought she’d go through with it…I was very much under the impression that it was a sort of…cry for attention.”

“That she broke it off with you, for that guy?”

“It’s how she got me to propose,” Dorian admitted.

My expression must have betrayed my disgust in her, and my disbelief at him, because Dorian covered his eyes with one hand and groaned.

“I’ve been an utter idiot, haven’t I?”

“They probably won’t be letting you into MENSA anytime soon, but…” I found myself wanting to be something other than sarcastic and marginally supportive, just this once. “…you really loved her, and sometimes we act like idiots for the people we fall for.”

Dorian sighed.

I ate a pancake.

This inspirational, comforting thing wasn’t going all that well.

“Tell me about how you met her,” I said, after a prolonged silence in which Dorian had sipped his coffee, then put it down and glared at it.

“Opal?”

“Well, start with her, we can do fiancée number two later, if we have time.”

That raised another smile.

“Opal’s family owns an airline, and her father is friends with my second cousin, Amelia…we met at a coming out party in New York, and I knew right then that I wanted to marry her. So I proposed a year into our relationship, on a visit to the south of France… ”

“I’m getting the feeling that your cup rather runneth over with posh.”

“Yes, I suppose it does. Or did anyway. I declined to go into the same line of work as my father, and my three brothers, and since then I haven’t really been the family favourite.”

“What’s the family business?”

“Mainly stock trading, though my brother recently branched out into small business ownership.”

I snored loudly.

“I agree, and anyway, I’ve always liked art more than having a lot of money.”

“I’m sensing that this is where Opal got cold feet?”

“At the prospect of me making an almost negligible living as an artist, and inheriting very little from my disappointed parents…she called off the wedding.”

“But you look like you’re doing OK, money-wise.”

“I’m a very very lucky artist. And after a while my parents realised that I was doing well, and came to terms with my career choice.”

I grinned. “Beats working in a shop for minimum wage…still, my fiancé left me at the altar before I got the job. So at least I know it wasn’t that that tipped him over the edge.”

Dorian winced. “You were…jilted?”

“To the extreme,” I sighed, “Stephen-the-indecisive. Proposed, insisted we rush the wedding, then didn’t even show. Five years ago.”

“And since then you haven’t tried again?”

“Clearly you’re more hopeful than me,” I said, stirring my coffee and looking at it rather than at him, “I think I’d have to trust someone a hell of a lot to go through with that long, long walk again. Or, I’d just have to…not care, about whether or not we made it. Hardly excellent reasons to tie the knot.”

“The first one was.”

“I trusted Stephen,” I pointed out, “and here I sit, broke, in a dress someone else paid for, pretending to be the fiancée of a man I barely know.”

“So what you’re saying is…it all worked out fine, and you adore my company?”

“Cute.”

“I try.”

“So, what do you have planned for the evening, post-wedding?” I asked.

“I was thinking I’d go back to my hotel, crack open the awful novel I bought at the airport, and have complimentary coffee for dinner.”

“That sounds…unbearably sad.”

“Sad is the running theme of today.”

“No, I refuse to accept that.” I sat back and crossed my arms. “You are going to have a good time tonight if it kills me.”

“…hurrah?”

“I’m serious. You’re all dressed up…I can show you a nice restaurant and you can at least have a good dinner, maybe see a little of Bath?”

“We.”

“I’m sorry?”

“We, can have a nice dinner,” Dorian said shyly. “You deserve it after braving the wedding.”

“I couldn’t…I mean, I don’t have the money for a nice place…I barely have the money for a nasty place.”

“I’ll pay.”

“But…”

He raised a hand. “You paid for the coffee, it’s only fair.”

I narrowed my eyes. “You are just too bloody charming.”

“Or, I’m just charming enough.”

“I’ll work it out at dinner,” I said.

 

 

 

 

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