5

Mia stepped out of the bridal shop dressing room and headed for the platform in front of the three-way mirror. The stiff satin gown flowed out around her as she walked.

“Shoes will help,” Katie said, grabbing a pair with three-inch heels from a row of bridal pumps in front of the mirror.

Mia held up her skirt, then slid into the shoes. They were too big. Like a little girl playing dress up, she shuffled the last couple of feet to the platform and stepped up. Katie moved around her, adjusting the dress.

“How are you two doing?” the salesperson asked as she breezed in front of the mirror. She tilted her head as she studied Mia. “She’s just lovely. What a beautiful dress.”

Katie agreed with her on both counts. The strapless satin gown hugged Mia’s full breasts, rib cage, and waist before flaring out to the floor. The heavy fabric flowed into a train. The dress was a little big on Mia, so Katie reached for a box of pins tucked on a shelf by the side mirror.

“We’d like to see what it would look like if it was fitted,” she said to the saleswoman. “Is that all right?”

“Of course.”

The woman watched for a couple of seconds, then smiled. “You seem to know exactly what you’re doing. I’ll leave you two to discuss possibilities.”

Katie circled Mia, taking in a bit of fabric around the waist, then fluffing out the skirt. “What do you think?”

Mia looked at her reflection. “I like the style, but there’s something wrong.”

Katie nodded. Mia looked like a princess, despite her streaked hair and big eyes. The white satin set off her skin. Yet it didn’t look…perfect.

“What do you like about it?” she asked.

Mia shrugged. “That it’s strapless. I like the lace.” She brushed her hand against the lace sewn across the waist and rising toward her breasts. More lace decorated the hem and the train.

Katie squinted, trying to imagine her sister walking down the aisle of a church. The way she would move and the dress would move with her. The flow of the fabric. The-

“The satin’s too heavy,” she announced. “It’s not going to look right on you. We should have seen it before. You’re only five foot three and despite having the biggest boobs in the family, you’re really small. Don’t move.”

She hurried back to the dressing room, where they had already tried on and discarded five other wedding gowns. She returned with one covered in tulle and lace.

It was an off-the-shoulder style that had made Mia’s neck look as wide as a fullback’s. But the fabric was perfect. Lace decorated the bodice of the dress, becoming more scattered closer to the bottom. A lace trim finished the hem.

“Imagine the dress you’re wearing,” she continued, “but with this material. It’s soft, it flows better, and it won’t overwhelm you. I would do a band of satin at the top, to give the bodice structure, but the rest of the gown could be in this lacy tulle. What do you think?”

Mia kicked off her shoes and spun around on the platform. “Yes. That’s exactly right. It will be perfect for summer, too. I love all the lace.” She beamed at her sister. “You’re the best.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Katie couldn’t help smiling. “Okay. If you’re sure, then go get changed and we’ll grab some lunch. After that, I want to have you pick out the lace.”

Forty-five minutes later they sat across from each other at a Beverly Hills bistro. While Katie didn’t normally shop in this part of town, she’d wanted Mia to see as many lovely gowns as possible before making her choice.

“Are you sure about the dress?” Katie asked after they’d given their order. “We can keep looking.”

Her youngest sister tucked her shoulder-length hair behind her ears. “I swear, I love your idea. I’ll have to start working on my arms, though, so they’re buff.”

“They’re pretty buff now.”

“Thank you.” Mia picked up her soda and took a drink. “I can’t wait to see the look on David’s face when he sees me walking down the aisle. He’s gonna die.”

“Let’s hope not.”

Mia grinned. “You know what I mean.” Her smile faded a little. “Katie, are you okay? You’ve been kind of distracted today.”

“I’m fine.”

“Really?”

Katie nodded because there was no way she was telling the truth. What Zach had done yesterday still made her furious every time she thought about it, which was far too often. Okay, he loved his son and was worried about him, but that didn’t excuse threatening her or wanting her to betray her family.

Whatever his plan had been, he’d blown it, because she was more determined than ever to see Mia and David happily married.

“Are we counting calories?” she asked to distract her sister.

Mia shook her head. “Not even close.”

“Good.”

Katie flipped back the white napkin covering the bread basket between them and groaned when the smell of freshly baked rolls drifted to her. She offered the basket to her sister, then took one for herself.

The flaky crust scattered crumbs everywhere when she tore it in half. Katie braced herself for a religious experience. A dab of sweet butter completed the moment. She took a bite.

Heaven. Pure heaven. Who needed men when there was perfect French bread in the world?

And speaking of men…

Zach flashed back into her brain. Go away, she told the image. She refused to find him attractive after what he’d done. He was not good-looking, not sexy, and certainly not her type.

One out of three, she thought wryly. Not bad odds. He’d been a jerk, and she would be wise to forget about him. There was only one problem-a couple of things he’d said had made sense.

Oh, she didn’t want that to be true, but there it was. Young marriages didn’t often make it.

“Do you ever think it’s strange that our parents have always pushed us to get married so young?” she asked her sister.

Mia shrugged. “I never thought about it. It’s not really our folks, it’s much more Grandma Tessa and Grandpa Lorenzo. It’s an Italian thing.”

“That and they want a male heir for the winery.”

Mia laughed. “Granny M shares that. I couldn’t believe she sounded disappointed when I said I wasn’t pregnant. Most grandparents would be relieved.”

“Not ours.”

Katie thought about all the subtle and not-so-subtle hints she’d received over the years. About how she would be so much happier if she was married and had children of her own. Preferably male children.

Mia leaned toward her. “Why can’t they leave the winery to Brenna? She cares about wine making and stuff.”

“Brenna lives in L.A. That makes it hard to run things on a day-to-day basis. I have my own business, Francesca is studying psychology and sociology, and-”

“And I plan to take over the world,” Mia said lightly. “Brenna is the right one, if you ask me. Now that Jeff is out of medical school, he could start a practice up close to the hacienda. Plus, then we’d get to see them more.”

“Good point. I wonder if they’ve discussed it. Or if Jeff would be interested.”

“I don’t know.” Mia planted her elbows on the table. “That’s one thing I really like about David. He sees me as an equal. He knows I’m smart and capable and that I have goals. And he’s okay with that.”

Zach’s words drifted through Katie’s brain. She could hear him saying that Mia and David were too young to make it.

“You’re making a pretty big decision,” she said, even as she hated herself for bringing it up in the first place. “Marriage is forever. I envy you knowing it’s right.”

Mia’s smile faded as she reached for Katie’s hand. “Is all this wedding talk making you think about Greg?”

Oops. Not the direction she’d wanted the conversation to go. Ex-fianc?s should best be forgotten. She squeezed her sister’s fingers. “I’m fine with Greg. To be honest, I’m not sorry we didn’t get married. I don’t think it would have worked. I guess my concern is that you have so much of your life in front of you. I want to make sure you’re marrying David because it’s what you want and not because of family pressure or feeling that it’s time.” She grinned. “After all, it would be much easier to rule the world if you were single.”

“I think I can handle a marriage and world domination. I’m a great multitasker.” Mia studied her. “Katie, I love him. He’s everything I’ve ever wanted. As for being pressured by the family, that’s impossible to escape. You know. You get hassled every time you walk in the door.”

“Tell me about it. I swear I’ve dated every single guy over the age of twenty in a fifty-mile radius. Well, except for the ordained priests.”

“If Grandma Tessa didn’t think it was a sin, she’d be dragging them home for you, as well.”

“One of these day’s I’ll find the right man.”

Mia smiled. “Your own handsome prince?”

“Sure.”

“I hope so. I found mine.”

Katie looked at her sister’s pretty face. Contentment radiated from her expression and happiness brightened her eyes.

“Of course you’ll be happy with David,” she said, wondering why she’d ever thought differently. Zach might have his reasons for worrying-in his line of work, who could blame him? But statistics were about other people. Marcelli marriages were forever.

1

Mia collected the mail, including a copy of Cosmo in French, and ran up the stairs to her apartment. She’d already seen David’s truck parked on the street, so she knew he was waiting for her. She burst into the front door.

“We picked out a dress,” she announced, tossing her mail and backpack on the floor and slamming the door shut behind her.

David lay stretched out on the sofa. He grinned at her and motioned for her to come closer. “Hello to you, too.”

“Hello.”

She kicked off her Nikes and straddled him, bending low to kiss him. His arms came around her.

She loved looking into his face. His eyes were a deep, true blue and made her melt a little inside when she gazed at them. In his arms she felt sure and safe. While everyone in the world thought she was so smart and together, what they didn’t see was she was always afraid of being just the baby. She’d been the baby her whole life, and getting out on her own and growing up hadn’t been easy. With David around, she didn’t have to try so hard.

“Tell me about your day,” she said, brushing his mouth again and feeling heat fill her body.

He nipped her lower lip. “Tell me about the dress.”

“I can’t. You know that. It’s a surprise. But it’s beautiful and we picked out the fabric and the lace. Katie’s going to make the pattern from a couple of different ones. In the meantime, we all start the beading.”

“What beading?”

“All the lace gets beaded by hand. The flower petals are outlined in seed pearls and filled in with little beads. It’s what we do. You know-a tradition.”

“Cool.” He kissed her jaw. “So who is Robert Anderson?”

She raised her head. “Who?”

“I asked first. He called while you were out. There’s a message. Something about him coming out to L.A. in a couple of weeks and wanting to know if you’d like to have dinner.”

Mia bounced off the sofa to her feet and raced for the machine. Sure enough, the red light blinked steadily.

“He called!” she crowed. “He called, he called, he called.”

David sat up slowly. “Mia, who’s the guy?”

She spun around and grinned at him. “Oh, don’t give me that look. This isn’t personal. It’s about my career. Robert Anderson is that guy I met last summer at the Arabic language course I took. Remember? He went to Georgetown, too. We’ve been e-mailing and he said if he got out here, we could hang out. He’s willing to write me a letter of recommendation to both Georgetown and the State Department.”

“Yeah, right.” David looked anything but convinced.

“David, don’t act like that. The man is in his forties. He has a daughter close to my age. Plus he’s married and I met his wife and they’re a totally cool couple. They took me to dinner a couple of times.”

David didn’t look convinced.

She hurried back to the sofa and squeezed onto his lap. “You’re the one I love.”

“I don’t like the idea of you having dinner with other guys.”

Mia really, really wanted to roll her eyes, but that never led to meaningful conversation with the opposite sex. She also wanted to smack David upside the head. Another bad idea. Instead, she kissed his face, all the while murmuring phrases like “lovey dovey” and “kissy wissy.” It usually worked. Just not today.

He moved her off his lap and set her on the sofa next to him. David might be tall and skinny, but he could sure push her around without breaking a sweat, which was one of the things she really hated about being short.

“Mia, I’m serious,” he said.

She sighed. “I’m serious, too, David. Robert Anderson is someone who can help me. I’m in my junior year, which means I’ll be applying to grad schools over the summer. Getting into Georgetown isn’t a sure thing. Robert can help. If you’re so concerned that it’s more than just that, then come with us to dinner. I don’t care.”

Instantly his face brightened. “You wouldn’t mind me being there?”

“As they say in the Valley, well, duh. Of course you’re welcome. It’s going to be boring, but if you want to be there, then be there.”

“Okay. Great.”

He reached for her, but instead of falling into his embrace, she rose and crossed to the window. Once there, she stared out at her view of the side street and the apartment building across the way.

“I don’t know why you don’t trust me,” she said softly, folding her arms over her chest. “You’re going to have to get over that, David, or we’re going to be in trouble.”

“I do trust you.”

Mia didn’t say anything. Although she and David were the same age, sometimes she felt years older. Maybe all that crap about girls maturing more quickly wasn’t exactly the crap she thought it was.

“I know things are different for you,” she said, not wanting to fight. “You’re in your first year of college. You haven’t even picked a major yet.”

“A lot of people haven’t.”

“I know.” She turned to face him. “I’m not being critical. I mean, most kids don’t know what they want when they enter college. I happen to be one of the ones who did.”

“You also started college when you were sixteen. What was that all about?”

He grinned as he spoke, reminding her that this was a familiar point of discussion. He accused her of being too smart for her own good while she called him a lazy bum who couldn’t pick a direction of study.

But what if they weren’t really kidding?

Mia didn’t know where the thought came from. She also didn’t like it.

“I love you,” she said intently.

David rose and crossed the floor. When he reached her, he pulled her close. “I love you, too. I want to be with you for the rest of my life.”

She leaned into him, parting her lips for his kiss. When he picked her up to carry her into the bedroom, she found she sometimes quite liked that he was big enough to push her around.

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