Jenna was almost all the way back to the far wall when she spotted perfection hiding among the haute couture. It gleamed at her in aquamarine silk tafetta tucked out of place among the silvers and blacks that were unfortunately popular this season. She pulled the ballgown out, and held it up to her shoulders, looking down the length and feeling excitement fizzle in her veins like a sugar high. No waistline just under the bust to make her look dumpy here; this one was a full and proper corset top, designed to make her look like she had far more cleavage and less waist than she did. For one moment, she could pretend she was holding the winning ticket to everything she wished she could be. It whispered she was brilliant, and beautiful, rich and fashionable. Even if she knew it wasn’t true, in the aquamarine rustle and glow she could forget that for a while.
“There are no ugly people, only badly dressed.” She breathed the mantra, and knew that even if this dress violated all the season’s popular fashions, it obeyed the cardinal rule: it would make her look amazing. And, as the orange tag showed, it was on sale, plummeting from its stratospheric debut to just barely within her budget. Surely, a clerk must have made a mistake – but she wasn’t going to risk them finding it out! Turning, she practically flew to the changing stalls to skin out of her workout gear and make sure that she hadn’t misjudged the size. There were two men sitting just outside on the bored husband chairs, eminently ignorable as they were quiet and still and practically part of the woodwork, leaving her creep-meter pegging zero.
Unfortunately, the vision in brilliant blue-green really was high fashion – high enough that the corset laced in back, not front or even side, and she couldn’t get enough leverage or flexibility to quite reach the way she needed to. Desperation drove her to the stall door, looking for Christy and ready to leverage favors and weather snide remarks in order to get laced in. Her roommate and occasional companion in shopping adventures was on the other side of the shop, deep in flirtatious conversation with the cute shop clerk and totally oblivious to the way Jenna hopped up and down, calling her name. After a full minute of desperate trying and wishing she had a louder voice, Jenna gave up and sagged against the door. She was torn between the dire consequences of leaving her purse behind in the stall, and dragging her roommate away from the latest potential one night stand, and the desperate desire to be laced up.
Movement made her look over; the men in the bored husband chairs were watching her. The redhead was quietly laughing, but she couldn’t be too offended because it wasn’t meant to be mean, and the fist he was pressing to his lips clearly displayed a wedding ring. There was something strange about the texture of the skin on his hands, but she couldn’t get a good look before he turned, and pointed to the blond. “AJ, this one’s all yours.”
“What?” Jenna looked at them in consternation, her baffled question echoed by the blond, as he frowned at his friend. AJ couldn’t be very tall, even sitting, but he had a nice compact, symmetrical shape, and his neck was almost as thick as his head. He had to have a lot of muscle to pull off looking like he didn’t have much. She wondered if he was a diver, or spacer; you couldn’t get that kind of body in a gym, not when his neck was the only tell-tale not hidden under the high-end running gear oddly lacking any labels.
The redhead, who was also wearing the same no-label high-end gear as his friend, was gesturing at her. “She needs her corset laced up, and her friend she’s trying to signal isn’t helping. If you had better luck with women, you’d recognize that arms braced position she’s doing immediately. And since I’m not about to have my darling walk out and find me with my hands on another woman, you get to lace her up.”
AJ looked back and forth between Jenna and his friend, and said, slowly, “Why don’t I just get her friend?”
Two minutes ago, she would have been all for that – but the redhead’s smile was infectious, and the wink he gave her, combined with the honestly lost and flummoxed look on AJ’s face, made her want to join in the joke and tease him too. “Because you’re right here, and honestly, I bet you’re probably stronger than Christy, so you could do a better job. Please?”
The please was what got him up and moving, and she was right, he was short enough she could almost look him straight in the eyes when she was barefoot. She gave him her best brilliant grin, and spun to face the stall door pillar. Once steady, she tossed her head, sweeping her waist-length blonde locks out of the way so he could get at the laces without pulling her hair. He didn’t look like the kind to be clumsy enough to tie her hair in the knots, but you never knew. He put his hands gently to her sides; she could feel the heat of them through the fabric, and the strength in them steadying her. “What does stronger have to do with… how do I secure this?”
She was not going to laugh. She wasn’t. It wouldn’t be nice, not when he was so honestly at sea. Even his buddy dropped his voice and said gently, “Start by making sure any material underneath is all pulled straight. See the laces in the middle, how they’re loose and long? You’re taking up the slack by pulling those out until everything is roughly secured. At which point, you start working from top to middle and bottom to middle to remove all remaining slack. Then you tie it in a bow.”
“A bow.” AJ sounded certain his friend was yanking his chain.
She looked back and smiled. “Yes, a bow. And then because there’s lots of lacing left over, you tie the bow into another bow. Thank you.”
He blinked, and after a moment, gave her a small crooked smile, the kind that started at his eyes and took a while to work its way to his mouth. “Don’t thank me yet, until you see what a hash I’ve made of it.” But he started tugging on the laces.
She turned back and braced in the proper position. From behind her, she heard his friend say softly, “All the best presents come wrapped in bows.”