Chapter 3

 

Four and a Half Years Earlier…

 

MacKenna smoothed her palms across the cheap white satin covering a small table where her appointment diary and a vase of fake white roses sat. She’d been the proud owner of Invercargill Bridal for almost six months now but still operated in the red, even though she’d cut so many corners to buy the business her life was practically circular. The previous owner and her former employer/mentor, Tabitha Lowe, assured Mac it’d take a while for her to become accustomed to coming out from behind the sewing machine to deal with customers. What had she been thinking? Three years getting a diploma in fashion design and another two working to become Tabby’s right-hand woman didn’t qualify Mac to know how to deal with pain-in-the-ass clients.

Speaking of whom…

Sofia Douglas. Final fitting. Written in Mac’s carefully formed script under today’s date in her diary. Professionalism had prevented her from adding world-class bitch to the note.

Twenty-four years old, a wannabe model moonlighting as a receptionist, Ms. Douglas and Mac only had age in common. Sofia and her mother had spent the past two consultations and first fitting appointments bickering and virtually ignoring Mac’s every suggestion. Mac had gathered every scrap of patience she’d gained from years of dealing with her mother’s dramas and had continued to smile ever so politely.

This time—according to a brusque phone conversation—Sofia wasn’t bringing her mother along. Thank God. Two Douglas women in the same room again…

MacKenna straightened the plain white shirt she wore over her knee-length skirt and winced as the back of her heel rubbed in the sensible black pump. Professional, she reminded herself, bending to adjust the Band-Aid she’d applied to hopefully prevent the appearance of the mother of all blisters. If she was professional and kept chill, she’d soon be selling more of her one-of-a-kind bridal designs and less of the hire-a-dress gowns hanging along one wall of the shop.

The bell above the door tinkled, and Mac jumped in her chair as Sofia Douglas swept inside. Not an auburn hair on her head dared to be out of place, and not a wrinkle creased her white linen dress that lovingly skimmed over the woman’s whippet-thin limbs and stopped short enough to highlight her long bare legs and sky-high heels. Mac shoved aside a whole barrage of envious feels. Such as why couldn’t she wear a white dress without getting at least one coffee drip on it by morning tea? Or explain how heels on a woman like Sofia made her legs appear a mile long but on Mac made her look like a kid dressing up in her mum’s shoes? Or…

The next not-so-charitable thought evaporated out of her head when a man stepped inside the shop after Sofia and shut the door. Taller even than Sofia, who was fairly tall for a woman, the man had broad shoulders filling out his pale-blue business shirt in the nicest possible way. He was clean-shaven and had clipped, short brown hair—a good-looking guy, no doubt about it. Easy on the eyes, a man you’d probably give a real number to at a pub rather than a fake one, but perhaps not a guy you’d nudge your girlfriends over with an OMFG hottie-alert expression.

Mac’s gaze zipped down, catching a glimpse of overexposed cleavage since her white shirt had slipped a button while she had been bent over adjusting her shoe. She rose to her feet, quickly refastening the button so her boobs weren’t hanging out. But no matter—the man hadn’t taken his adoring gaze off Sofia.

“Good morning.” Mac was pretty certain her smile nailed professional and polite, yet Sofia’s gaze gave her the once-over with dismissive disdain clear as day in her cinnamon-colored eyes.

“Hi.”

Sofia’s expression was as emotionless as that of a porcelain doll until she turned her face toward the man at her side. Then it was like watching a mannequin come to life in a creepy horror movie. Her glossed lips parted in a siren’s smile, and she leaned into him, sliding her hand around his arm and gripping his biceps.

“This is my fiancé, Joe Whelan,” she said. “Doctor Joe Whelan.”

Mac waited for a moment to see if Sofia’s introduction would include introducing her to the fiancé. Evidently, Mac was merely the help and not important enough to acknowledge. Sofia tilted her chin up at her doctor and murmured something that made him smile.

“Behave, you fine thing,” he said.

A hot pinprick of awareness stabbed deep inside Mac. Dr. Joe Whelan’s smile and Dr. Joe Whelan’s voice with the lilt of Ireland in it took him from good-looking well into the OMFG hottie-alert zone. Maybe beyond it.

And that had to stop right bloody now.

“I’m MacKenna Jones, owner of Invercargill Bridal.” Mac stepped forward with an extended hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Joe dragged his gaze from his upturned fiancée’s face and met Mac’s greeting with a brisk handshake and another melt-your-panties smile. Okay, maybe it melted Mac’s panties, but she retained enough semblance of sanity to recognize the reaction was hers alone. His smile contained nothing more than the warm friendliness of a confident-with-himself man.

“Pleasure’s all my own,” he said, tucking Sofia closer into his side. “Since you’re the one doing a grand job making my beautiful bride-to-be look even more beautiful on our big day.”

Sofia beamed, all but preening under the praise. The glance she shot Mac overran with syrupy smugness. See? her eyes seemed to say. I’m beautiful, and I brought down a sexy doctor like a hunter brings down a prize buck.

“You’re too sweet for me, baby,” Sofia all but purred. “Paying for our wedding and insisting on buying me the perfect dress.”

Another narrow-lashed gaze was aimed at Mac, in case she’d somehow missed that Sofia had bagged herself a wealthy man. Good for her. And more fool him if he only wanted a pretty face on his arm and wasn’t worried about the ugliness Mac was afraid lay just beneath Sofia’s surface.

Or possibly Mac was letting the baggage from her mother’s trail of wreckage through three failed marriages color her opinion of Sofia.

“I have your dress ready to try on, if you’d like to come with me?”

“Okay. You can run along, baby. I’ll miss you.” Sofia rose on the tiptoes of her scarily high heels and pulled her fiancé’s face down for a kiss. One that involved more of Sofia’s tongue than Mac was comfortable witnessing.

Could she just say ewwwww?

Mac turned away from Sofia’s vigorous cleaning of Joe’s tonsils and collected her tape measure and pin caddy from a small drawer under the table. The sucky-face noises finally stopped, and Mac figured it was safe to turn around. Sofia was giggling softly and wiping lip gloss off Joe’s mouth with her fingertips. The man looked as if he’d been whacked over the head with a two-by-four, and Mac refused to glance down at the front of his gray suit pants.

Pasting on her brightest there’s nothing crass about PDA smile, Mac kept her gaze away from Joe’s groin and pinned to a spot just behind his right ear. “I’ll have Sofia back with you in an hour or so.”

Earlier if she could manage it. The thought of spending any longer with her made Mac’s skin crawl.

“I’ve got to nip into the hospital to check on a young lad before surgery anyway.” Joe stroked a palm down Sofia’s bare arm. “Better not stand around gawping at you in your dress since it’s bad luck.”

Then with a quick kiss to the top of Sofia’s head, he was gone.

Once the bell had finished tinkling above the door, Sofia’s sweet smile evaporated.

“You’ve got thirty minutes.” Her heels clicked on the hardwood floor toward the boutique’s single dressing room. “I’m meeting my friends at eleven.”

Twenty minutes of adjusting, measuring, and pinning passed. Mac moved around Sofia, shaping what would be the most gorgeous gown she’d ever made. A gown destined for a woman who’d spent the entire time on her phone and had barely glanced in the dressing room’s full-length mirror.

Sofia’s phone buzzed again, this time a call. The dressing room was so deathly silent—aside from the soft classical music piped into the room—that Mac could hear both sides of the conversation. After a few moments of gratingly loud laughter, she tuned out—until a screeched comment from the woman on the other end of the line raised the hairs on Mac’s nape.

“You went home with the guy from Finnegan’s after we’d finished partying, didn’t you? God, you’re such a slut.”

Mac’s finger’s pinched tight on the pinhead she’d just slipped through a seam to narrow the gown’s tapered skirt. Her gaze flicked up to Sofia, who continued to study her own reflection with a bored smirk. If Sofia’s eyes rolled any harder in her head, they’d pop out and spin across the floor. Either the woman was unaware her private conversation wasn’t private, or she didn’t care that Mac couldn’t help but overhear.

Sofia braced a hand on her hip then flinched, uttering a muffled curse as a pin pricked her finger. She glared down with a furrowed brow, and Mac offered an apologetic smile. Though she wasn’t apologetic. In fact, she hoped it hurt like hell. A blotchy pink stain spread over Sofia’s cheeks, and she arched her chin away from Mac.

“I can neither confirm nor deny,” she said into the phone.

She definitely wasn’t aware that Mac could hear her friend’s question then—since anyone in their right mind who lived in a small city like Invers knew how fast gossip spread when it involved an engaged woman hooking up with a non-fiancé in a bar. And there was little doubt in Mac’s mind that she had. She’d heard too many bullshit stories and self-delusions from her mother over the years to miss the obvious signs of a woman lying her ass off.

“What happens in Finnegan’s stays in Finnegan’s, eh?” the tinny voice said. “You’re not going to do it again, though, right? Imagine if Joe found out—shit, Sof. He’d dump you faster than you could say ‘too many dirty martinis.’”

“He’s not going to—” Sofia snapped her mouth shut and full-body clenched, her teeny-tiny buttocks tensing under the silky fabric. “Look, I’ll give you all the deets at Finnegan’s on Friday night while we discuss party plans. After eight, okay?” With one long fingernail, she tapped her phone and ended the call.

“My maid of honor’s organizing a hen’s night,” Sofia said in a we girls have to stick together tone. “She’s worried Joe’ll gate-crash the party.” Angling a hip, she pretended sudden interest in the way the gown draped over her butt.

“And will he?” And if he did, would he find his fiancée in the middle of a lap dance?

“Oh no. Parties aren’t Joe’s thing.”

In the mirror’s reflection, Sofia’s glossy lips thinned for a moment then stretched into a snake’s smile.

“He’s more of a stay at home with a few scoops and a rugby match on the telly,” she added in a patronizingly fake Irish accent. She flicked her hair over her shoulder. “He’s happy for me to go out with my friends and have fun.”

Mac made a noncommittal hum in her throat. Happy? The memory of Joe gazing so adoringly at Sofia trapped Mac’s breath within a ribcage made of cold steel. He was happy for her to go out with her friends and have fun because he trusted her. Trusted that the woman he was to marry loved him the way he obviously loved her. Trusted Sofia the way Mac’s father had once trusted her mother. But her dad had his heart broken anyway.

Mac straightened so fast from a crouch her kneecaps popped. “Friends are important.”

And so were loyalty, fidelity, mutual respect—at least in her world.

“Super true. And YOLO, right?” Sofia laughed.

The sound shredded Mac’s last nerve, and her back molars clicked together. She was done. Done-burger.

“I want to pick up my dress tomorrow afternoon. By three,” Sofia added, back to her normal, imperious bitch self.

Which meant Mac was in for a late night finishing the last-minute alterations, but right now she just wanted the woman out of her hair.

“Of course.” Her stomach churned as she unzipped the gown so Sofia could get changed.

She slipped out of the room, not even waiting this time as she usually did to carefully hang the gown back up. As far as Mac was concerned, the hours and hours of painstaking work she’d spent on that dress were wasted. She darted into the boutique’s little storage room/office and found her purse, left beside two big sample books of wedding fabrics. She yanked out her phone and hit the number for her best friend in the world.

“Reid?” she said when he answered.

“I’m about to enter a meeting; make it quick.”

Reid’s voice automatically created a barrier from the prickly, ugly feeling skittering over her skin—regardless that his words were brusque to the point of rude. Reid was one person she never had to pull punches with and vice versa. They’d gone to design school together for the first two years until Reid dropped out to care for his mother, diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Now he worked as an event planner in Queenstown, putting all his borderline-OCD organizational skills to good use.

“I need you Friday night, Bean.”

“Time, place, dress code?” he asked.

Her heart gave a little happy squeeze that, as usual, Reid would break plans in an instant if she said she needed him.

“Nine at Finnegan’s. Dress-code: boom-you’re-pregnant hot.”

And he’d pull off the look with ninety-nine percent of the women in Finnegan’s. Once a six-foot-three string bean, Reid was now packed out with hard-earned muscle. Her blond, good-looking mate usually made an impact with the ladies. True—of those ninety-nine women, ninety-eight of them would write him off as gay once they found out he used to be the most incredible designer-slash-sewer. But those who bothered to look past the stereotype were lucky enough to discover a passionate, driven, straight man with an unrivalled sense of loyalty.

Reid gave a soft snort. “What the hell are you up to, Mac? Trying to make some poor guy jealous?”

“Yeah.” Mac’s stomach lurched. “But not in the way you think.”

She needed him to be the bait in a honey trap before Sofia ruined a good man’s life.