"I THOUGHT YOU SAID I COULD WEAR BLACK," TESS SAID, standing on a footstool in a huge dressing room and tugging miserably at a tube of crimson silk. Clearly intended for a beanpole without freckles on her shoulders, the dress had one zipper, two seams, an elasticized band around the top, and a fourteen-hundred-dollar price tag. There was more workmanship in the apron that Tess had made in home ec at Rock Glen Junior High. The apron had pockets.
"Black would be fine, but it's so boring and safe," Kitty said, studying Tess and then Tess's reflection, as if the mirror might yield a more pleasing verdict. "I wanted to see you in some colors for a change."
"It's appalling to pay this much for a dress like this."
"I don't care for it much either. Your hair and skin are going to fight that shade of red every step of the way."
"No, I don't mean this dress, I mean any dress that's all label and Third World workmanship. Jesus, Kitty, let's go to C-Mart when the next truck rolls in, buy a marked-down gown from Saks, and give the rest of what you were planning to spend to one of the local soup kitchens. Besides, who knows? You might find another Prada bag marked down to seventy-five dollars."
Kitty had indeed unearthed a Prada bag at C-Mart five years ago, and it was the stuff of family legend. Tess's mother, Judith, had driven the thirty-plus miles out to the Belair warehouse several times with her Weinstein sisters-in-law, hoping to repeat Kitty's good luck. Prada proved elusive, but Judith had ended up with an out-of-season Kate Spade, a pair of Stuart Weitzman pumps, and several cashmere twinsets for twenty dollars apiece.
But Kitty was a Monaghan. She didn't mind paying retail to get what she wanted-or even asking these bridal boutiques to open on Sunday, just for her, so she didn't have to miss a day of work in her own store. Kitty's Karma, the family called it.
"I told you, this is my gift to you." Kitty kept circling Tess, poking and prodding, as if her persuasive hands could make the dress behave. "I'm exercising my bridal prerogative to boss you around, but instead of forcing you into some hideous lavender tulle concoction to match an insane color scheme, I want to pick out your dress and mine, then work backward, base everything on that. Just once I want you to have a perfect dress, the kind of thing you would never buy yourself."
"But it's such a waste."
"Far from it. Trust me, Tess. One day you'll regret not making more of the time in your life when all you needed was a little eyeliner to be dazzling. Does Crow have a tux?"
"I have no idea."
"Well, it's black tie optional, and I know he doesn't have money to spring for a new one, and rentals never fit right. But I wouldn't be; surprised if his father had one he could wear. Mention that the next time you talk to him."
"Was he surprised? I hope he doesn't mind that we're going to go with a little jazz combo instead of one of the more avant-garde local bands he champions."
" 'I knew the bride,' " Tess said ruefully," 'when she used to rock and roll.' "
She had quoted the old song title just to change the subject, but as soon as she spoke, Tess had a vivid image of Kitty as a young college student, throwing herself around the Monaghan living room to some cutting-edge punk band, showing a young Tess how to pogo. She had been a most satisfactory aunt all these years. She was entitled to a little bridal madness.
The saleslady appeared with a tray of tea, sandwiches, and cheese puffs, and Tess looked at them with longing. But she wouldn't dare eat a crumb while surrounded by ten thousand dollars' worth of dry-clean-only duds.
"No luck with the red?" the woman asked a little too brightly. She was extremely thin, perhaps even a size zero, but a tad old to carry the youthful fashions she wore.
"Do I look like I'm having any luck with the red?" Tess asked.
"What about the salmon?"
"The color was okay, but the style was wrong," Kitty said. "Too fussy."
"Ah. Now, if it were you-"
"But it's not for me. We're shopping for my niece today."
This was the third store of the afternoon, and they had heard this same wistful refrain before. If it were you… Kitty, with her petite figure, peachy skin, and red-blond curls, was a saleswoman's dream, even if she didn't have the height to carry true couture. Tess, clomping behind her in boots and jeans and sweater, had felt like one of Cinderella's stepsisters.
"What are you going to do with the hair?" the saleslady asked, as if it were a stray pet Tess had adopted, not part of her body.
"Shave it," Kitty said. "Mine, too. Everyone at the wedding is going to be bald. I saw it in InStyle magazine. Very chic, and it saves a fortune on hairdressers."
The saleslady backed away with a nervous smile, and Tess was reassured that her aunt had not completely lost her sense of humor.
"Can we break for lunch?"
"Just one more stop," Kitty said, using the soft, wheedling tone that had sold so many books and won so many men before she decided she could live with just one. "There's a place in Towson that carries Vera Wang."
"Vera Wang doesn't really do hips, which I have in abundance."
"But she does do cleavage, which you also have in abundance."
"I've never gone for that bosomy swell where you end up on nipple patrol the whole evening, worrying that an entire breast might pop out of the top of your dress and hit someone in the face."
"Good point," Kitty said, studying Tess's d'ecolletage, which was fighting the red dress even harder than her hair and her skin. "We couldn't afford the liability insurance if those things got loose at the reception. High neck it is."
Gratefully, Tess jumped down from the footstool, knocking over her bag, which sent her gun skittering across the floor. Kitty lifted the hem of her ankle-length skirt, as if the Beretta were a rodent.
"Do you always carry that now?"
"Everywhere it's legal."
"Will you insist on bringing it to the wedding?" Kitty was striving for a light tone, but Tess could tell she was upset. She didn't like guns, and she didn't like being reminded that Tess would now be dead without one. Her aunt simply could not reconcile those two facts. Tess understood. She wasn't particularly fond of this reality either, but she was getting used to it. She tried to think of the Beretta as a paradoxical talisman: As long as she had it, she would never need it.
"Depends on whether the dress has a belt, so I can holster it. Of course, I also have a shoulder holster. Or maybe that fancy handbag designer, the one who does all those one-of-a-kind bags for Oscar night, could whip up something for an armed and dangerous bridesmaid."
"You know, I think we should break for lunch after all."