PROLOGUE Overture

THIS IS NOT HOW I IMAGINED MY WEDDING.

I’ve dreamed of this day for as long as I can remember. White puffy dress, a glorious wedding march, and pink rose petals falling from the sky like spring rain to fill the air as I walk towards my prince. My heart filled with joy at the sight of his face, all others forgotten as I lean up to meet his kiss.

“We don’t need to really kiss,” he whispers against my lips. “I’m sure the little sea witch won’t notice.”

The pleasant warmth from his breath makes the already mortifying situation worse. I can’t help but lean into him as the distinct sound of stomping feet is followed by a high-pitched command.

“Kiss the girl!” Lily’s sparkly slippers shimmer in the sun, her matching sequined dress rippling in the golden fury of the wind and her tantrum. “Kiss her, Sam!”

“I’m sorry.” He leans down to brush his lips against the edge of my quivering ones. My out of place emotions must be louder than the blast of a ship’s horn. But his kiss to my cheek is short and chaste, as it should be. Because this isn’t our wedding day, it’s just a little girl’s dream afternoon. The culmination of pandering to childish fantasy and princess dreams for an imaginative birthday girl.

When I started working in the princess party business, I certainly didn’t imagine I would go so far as to re-enact an actual princess wedding with the client’s college-age brother. But my boss is exacting in her demands for this job. She even wrote a handwritten list, in all-caps, as if I would forget her serious and bossy tone that made her instructions sound less like employee guidelines and more like a threatening curse.

Do whatever the client wants.

Don’t socialize with the family.

Arrive in costume.

Never break character.

That last one is a deal breaker, and I hadn’t meant to break it. And it only happened once, when I arrived early to setup for the party.

This gorgeous guy, whom I’m at this very moment pretend marrying, interrupted me. I didn’t hear him over my lonely humming until he tripped on a haphazard chair, hitting his head and falling into the pool beside me. I reached in to save him, but he was heavier than your average flailing toddler. I dragged him to the pool stairs, not far because he slipped into the shallow end, and he came to. I wasn’t breaking my boss’s rules, I didn’t even technically talk to him, other than a quick cursory check that he was alive. He thanked me and called me beautiful and left the pool in fashionably sopping clothes clinging to a perfectly trim body, fly away hair stuck to his tanned forehead. But it was his warm eyes like caramel brownies that tempted me.

He got the sleeves of my marshmallow dress soaked. Thankfully, the unseasonably warm weather ended up drying me off between when the birthday guests started trickling in and when the birthday princess arrived for her surprise party.

Surprise!

I nearly choked on my tea when he arrived with his little sister Lily and her little friends squealed surprise! She is today’s birthday princess and my client for this cheesy pool party. A pool party I’m the star of. Her arrival with the young man I’d only recently saved from drowning in a public pool was a surprise apparently only for me.

My confusion cleared quickly and his ensuing amusement at my profession remained while he made an effort to help with the party, drinking tea and singing princess songs and smirking the whole time. I secretly enjoyed his cheeky grins and adored his appreciative looks, all while chastising myself.

This isn’t our wedding day.

I repeat this to myself as he takes my hand firmly, turning us to face the guests for our mock-wedding while the acting Captain’s voice booms behind us.

“May I present Mr. and Mrs. Sam Fisher.”

Sam turns quickly to hiss over his shoulder at the jovial Captain, his great-uncle.

“This isn’t real, sir.”

“Of course, young man,” Captain Pierre, or Uncle Bob, badly stage whispers back. “I’m just acting for the little lady, she’s loving this.”

“The things we do,” Sam mutters, wrapping his warm hands around mine and bringing my fingers to his lips. I should be more worried about the pretend validity of our marriage because I didn’t actually say “I do,” but my eyes haven’t left his face. I’m afraid to meet his gaze. Instead, I’ve been staring at his dark chin stubble. He could’ve at least cleaned up a bit better for our pretend wedding, but at least his polo shirt has a collar.

Princesses don’t get paid enough for this.

“Hey,” his voice softens with kindness. He waits for my eyes to meet his hot chocolate ones. It’s just the color making me melt, not the feelings behind them. “Let’s get the show done.”

Nodding, I lift my head to take in the scene. We walk forward through a sea of paper snowflakes covered in glitter. A chorus of small hands joyously claps, following us as we walk to the railing of the public pool. Pulling my expression into one of serene happiness, I glance down at the little girl who is singularly responsible for this parody of my life. I almost enjoy the excitement and pride on her little six-year-old face. But there’s a hint of triumph too mature for her years that gives me pause.

“Miss Lily,” I ask in my perfect princess voice, “do you really want me to throw this bouquet in the ocean?”

The enormous bundle of tropical flowers must have cost a fortune. It’d buy me a lot of groceries, but even more, I’d rather keep it in my room than toss it in this pool water.

Princesses at Princess Parties don’t get paid enough for this.

“You have to. The flowers will live forever in the sea, just like true love.” A gap-toothed smile of pure innocence widens as she nods at me. After two hours of troublemaking and impossible requests, I know better, but her parents are paying the bills. I am voiceless and cursed by my employer, so I have to bow to her wishes.

Which is ironic, because I’m supposed to be a princess.

“Someday my prince will find them, and we’ll live happily ever after, just like you and Sam.”

“As you wish.” My response is dignified and airy, covering Sam’s snicker with my sing-song voice and ending it abruptly as I accidently hit his head with the flowers, tossing them heartily to their watery finale. I don’t even feel bad for my cathartic and immature behavior. Which reminds me of our soggy meeting earlier. His head is fine now, I’m sure.

But watching those beautiful flowers on their long descent into the water makes me momentarily nostalgic. I glance at Sam, leaning against the railing beside me, and his easygoing, fun-loving manner is replaced for just a moment with something resembling understanding. Or maybe even tenderness. For a split second I’m more afraid of drowning in the depths of his heated gaze than the water. The sun shines into our eyes, light too bright from the reflection on the pool, and the moment is broken.

“Bravo!” Uncle Bob bellows, startling me so I slip on the deck. Sam, my pretend prince, grasps my waist to prevent my fall, grappling with the poofy taffeta until he finds a solid grip.

“Oh dear!” I cover my racing heart, palm fluttering to my throat with a carefree giggle. A performance worthy of any flighty princess. “My slippers made me slip!”

A delighted giggle from Lily is followed by a litany of questions about our celebration snack, and I reluctantly leave Sam’s embrace to follow her inside for cake.

Snack is too small a word for it though. It’s an afternoon tea worthy of the Queen. Arranged on white tea service stands with swirling sides, there’s herbal tea in a silver pot and real china teacups for Lily and her best friends. Beside mini quiches are little sandwiches with cucumber and dill made with brown and white bread, sliced into rectangles with absolutely no crust, of course. Round scones with jam and fluffy, clotted cream lie below the crowning glory. Cupcakes. Chocolate cupcakes covered in rainbow sprinkles.

Silver glitter covers the tablecloth and all the girls’ hands are covered with it. I look at the rhinestones on my sparkling princess dress, my thoughts torn between princes and feminism. Between the taffeta and the sprinkles, no one would ever guess I just finished my degree with a thesis on the representation of women in print media during local election campaigns.

I entertain the girls with tales about all my princess friends and their wedding banquets. Pretending to be a princess comes as naturally to me as singing. Besides, growing up with a sister literally provided facts for all of my fanciful and farcical royal nonsense.

Weddings.

I’m going across the ocean tomorrow to my sister’s.

Sydney will be great, and not just because it’s somewhere I won’t know anyone, or rather, no one will know about me and my cheesy job and my unused degree. Hopefully, I won’t have to answer uncomfortable questions about my future because the only future anyone will care about is the bride-to-be’s. And I will happily help her out with her happily-ever-after if it delays any mention of why I don’t have one yet.

Pouring more tea for my ladies-in-waiting, I consider Sam and his really sweet kiss on my cheek as he left us to our girly tea and scones. I smile at the memory of the kind words he whispered as a soft thank you for making his sister’s dreams come true. My heart burst because he picked a dandelion from beside the fence, intimately whispering that he was happy I said yes.

Prince and Princess of the ball indeed.

Lily is asking for pink lemonade instead of yellow, and the poor caterer is rushing to fix her mistake. The fear of the angry pout will do that to you.

Sigh.

Princesses and caterers at Princess Parties don’t get paid enough for this.

CHAPTER ONETwenty-Four

I AM GOING THE WRONG WEST.

I’ve always thought of myself as living on the West Coast, but now I’ve spent a whole day flying west, towards the sunset, above the ocean. Towards Sydney.

This will be an adventure.

Now, I’m heading to the West beyond. Maybe I need to go around the world to figure out my life. Somehow, I just knew I needed to go, to get out, to leave. And with my sense of direction floundering anyway, why not upend my sleep schedule in the hope of finding something spectacular.

I get up and attempt to get some blood flowing through my veins. Hopefully, my legs still work. It’s almost like by the third movie I forgot I even had them. But I need them for jumping and dancing and, well, walking. Even if I’ve been a puffy bundle of numbness while watching every available musical-turned-movie. Kangaroo designs cover the little bag containing travel socks and a weird, tiny set of toothbrush and toothpaste. I put on makeup and fix my hair in the even weirder and tinier plane bathroom.

Wouldn’t want my dear sister to think I’d dragged myself across the world with anything less than expectant and electric energy.

The ding of someone calling a flight attendant brings me back to the present, where recycled air filtering bacteria back and forth through the huge plane has dried my skin and eyes beyond recognition. These bathroom mirrors are unforgiving.

Returning to my seat, my gaze swings to the cargo hold above, holding the pink garment bag with a purple dress inside.

Maid of Honor. How very archaic. If I want to believe the Internet, anyways. It does seem a bit old fashioned, the whole wedding thing. Ceremony and roles and titles from bygone eras we all want to leave behind. I just want to be with my sister when she gets married and meet the Australian guy who is sweeping her off her feet.

I never feel this cynical when I talk to Melody. Like music, my sister somehow blends the pitches of life into a beautiful chord that, for those who know her, they cannot fail to recognize. But she’s lived so far away recently that I can’t keep her warmth and faith alive after I hang up the phone and return to campus life. She’s been living abroad and stretching her wings and upsetting the family dynamic with her religion and her choices. Like getting married.

I dig through my bag for additional cosmetic remedies, eventually finding them in the behemoth I’ve aptly named after Mary Poppins. It is literally an enormous bag with embroidered flowers and colorful beading set on black velvet. The supermassive black hole contains the trinkets and thingamabobs of my life. My passport and wallet and makeup and phone and earbuds. I often wish that I could dive through it and find myself somewhere new. Somewhere free, where I could spend all day in the sun. Then maybe I’d be free of all the strings holding me down. Somewhere that the sad irony of yesterday’s pantomime wedding or my stiff-necked reaction to men or romance can’t stop me.

Maybe this week I’ll be upside down and fly a kite and who says I can’t have the best time of my life.

No one, that’s who.

Especially not my grumpy dad, who should be arriving within an hour of me. We normally live in the same city, but he was at a conference on the other side of the country. Melody insisted we book these flights to make it easier logistically. Logistics. Who on earth cares about that? I suspect she’s just trying to get our family together as soon as possible to smooth any rough edges, especially the ones with dad. Our father is so resistant to her standing on her own two feet that he’s bound to continue the barrage of reprimands the instant we start any sort of conversation. Which is exactly why I’m here.

A buffer. The baby sister with no path or plans can steer the emotional rollercoaster towards the wedding of the century. Well, I’m no good at organizing logistics or keeping to a plan, but I will certainly do my best to make this week as fun and successful as possible.

But I’ll have to borrow some of Melody’s sunscreen. With my coloring, I’ll probably turn into some kind of bossy lobster in the sun. I knew I forgot something.

The overhead speakers cackle, pronouncing loudly that we’ll soon be landing in beautiful Sydney, where the temperature is a balmy twenty degrees Celsius. Maybe I’ll even like it here, my sister certainly does. As do most of the people living Down Under, presumably, with their fun accents and beachy hair and life in sandals. Everything will probably be backwards. The seasons, the traffic, the stars. I stared at the stars for a long time during this flight, and I think I truly saw them change as the plane flew the length of the world and I saw that the world is, in fact, not flat.

Twenty-four hours is a long time to think about what to do. Or what I didn’t do. Or what I want to do, and don’t do. It’s just a long time.

Walking down the narrow airplane aisle at the speed of snails doesn’t give me much escape from the bittersweet memory of Sam and the flower yesterday. Oh, I know it’s a weed. But it was the most beautiful weed I’d ever seen and for now and forevermore dandelions will be a flower to me. I have it pressed safely between my library card and my driver’s license. Neither of which I’ll need when I’m here. I’m not doing any driving on the left side. I’ve never been great with directions and that complication just begs for trouble.

The Big Day is in less than a week.

Handel composed the Messiah in twenty-four days. Learning the soprano chorus parts took me an entire semester of University. But this, a small wedding at a destination far enough to exclude all but immediate family? It’ll be a cinch. She already has a dress and took time off work. I just have to help design décor for the chapel, which she described as modern and unadorned. Well, the modern part sort of freaks me out because she wants it to look like a garden, but that’s nothing we can’t fix with creative shopping. Maybe that’s just twenty-four hours of pent up dread dressing up as enthusiasm, but I’ll take it.

Exiting the plane is exhausting, my enthusiasm evaporates the second I feel it.

I need coffee.

Melody keeps posting these pictures of her lattes online, and she’s always at some coffee shop with a funny name that I can’t remember. She’s obsessed with it and Phil, her wonderful-fiancé-who-always-treats-her-like-a-treasure-blah-blah-blah. Seriously, her social media feeds make my inner feminist a little queasy.

I dress like a princess for a living, but I’ve never really felt like one. Not until the flower, anyway.

And now my prince is lost to the seas, getting back to his comfortable life somewhere back on another continent and forgetting all about me, while I’ve been wondering if I could have loved him.

My adagio is interrupted, the reverie startled away as the present tosses my suitcase down the shaft onto the luggage carousel. Not the pretty kind with sparkling lights and zebras and purple ponies and mirrors. I shake my head. Just like the musical, asking the question didn’t help anyone. If I loved him, well, then something should happen. Not nothing. And something is not happening, even if the tall guy with a baseball cap walking away pushing a shiny suitcase on a luggage trolley reminds me so much of him that my heart bounces off the floor, tumbling on dirty airport concrete after him.

I take a step in his direction, my feet desperate to follow the apparition of my fake, fairytale prince through the Sydney airport.

Sheesh.

I narrowly avoid mangling my dress bag while dragging my heavy suitcase down the hall to immigration. After searching to find my passport and excitedly explaining the imminent wedding of my beloved sister to a straight faced–one might say bored–official, I finally see freedom. Following large signs with SYD on them into the arrivals area, I smell fast food and coffee. My stomach leads the way, though my heart is momentarily taken off course again as the guy with the hat shows up ahead of me, his face still indistinguishable because of his thick hooded sweatshirt and the crowd between us.

One thing is perfectly clear. His is a face that I’ll always hope to see, until I see it again.

Wondering why people seem to be wearing such warm clothes when the weather is supposedly so temperate, I stumble behind a white-haired couple into an open area. Glimpsing familiar golden arches before I drop my dress, I huff and grumble as I attempt to gather everything. So much for putting on my contacts and making my appearance as put-together as possible. I can’t even manage to arrive without losing my grip.

Another pair of hands enters the fray. Grey sleeves and a hooded sweatshirt come into my vision and I look up into the delicious brown eyes I’ve been dreaming about. My voice fails me.

“Let me help you with these.”

Cocking an eyebrow at my silence, his competent movements bring my bags to order, but my face remains frozen in shock. I’m breathless and it’s almost scary how delighted my surprise feels.

“What are you doing here?”


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