CHAPTER 1 WELL, THIS was a first. "Deborah?" I said as I knocked softly, yet still with enough intensity to convey the proper urgency, on the door. "It's Louna. Can I help you with anything?" According to my mother, this was Rule One in dealing with this kind of situation: don't project a problem. As in, don't ask if anything is wrong unless you are certain something is, and as of right now, I was not. Although a bride locking herself in the anteroom of the church five minutes after the wedding was supposed to begin did not exactly bode well. From the other side of the door, I heard movement. Then a sniffle. Again, I wished William, my mother's partner and the company's appointed bride whisperer, was here instead of me. But he'd gotten hooked into another crisis involving the groom's mother taking issue with preceding the bride's mom down the aisle, even though everyone knew that was how the etiquette went. Work in the wedding business long enough, however, and you learn that everything has the potential to be a problem, from the happy couple all the way down to the napkins. You just never know. I cleared my throat. "Deborah? Can I bring you a water?" It wasn't ever the true solution, but a water never hurt: that was another one of my mother's beliefs. Instead of a response, the lock clicked, the door rattling open. I looked down the stairs behind me, praying I'd see William approaching, but no, I was still alone. I took a breath, then picked up the bottle I'd grabbed earlier and stepped inside. Hydration for the win. Our client Deborah Bell (soon to be Washington, ideally), a beautiful black girl with her hair in a bun, was sitting on the floor of the small room, her fluffy white dress bunched up around her. It had cost five thousand dollars, a fact I knew because she had told us, repeatedly, during the last ten months of planning this day. I tried not to think about this as I moved quickly, but not too quickly, over to her. ("Never run at a wedding unless someone's life is literally in danger!" I heard my mother say in my head.) I'd just opened up the water when I realized she was crying. "Oh, don't do that." I eased down into what I hoped was a professional knees-to-the-side squat, drawing a slim pack of tissues from my pocket. "Your makeup looks great. Let's keep it that way, okay?" Deborah, one false eyelash already loose--some lies are necessary--just blinked at me, sending another round of tears down her already streaked face. "Can I ask you something?" No , I thought. Now we were at nine minutes. Out loud I said, "Sure." She took in a shuddering breath, the kind that only comes after you've been crying awhile, and hard. "Do you . . ." A pause, as another set of tears gathered and spilled, this time taking the loose eyelash with them. "Do you believe that true love can really last forever?" Now someone was coming up the stairs. From the sound of it, though--large steps, lumbering, with a fair amount of huffing and puffing already audible--it wasn't William. "True love?" "Yes." She reached up--God, no! I thought, too late to stop her--rubbing a hand over her eyes and smearing eyeliner sideways up to her temple. The steps behind us were getting louder; whoever they belonged to would be here soon. Meanwhile, Deborah was just looking at me, her eyes wide and pleading, as if whatever happened next hinged entirely on my answer. "Do you?" I knew she wanted a yes or no, something concise and specific and if this were any other question, I probably could have given it to her. But instead, I just sat there, silent, as I tried to put the image in my head--a boy in a white tuxedo shirt on a dark beach, laughing, one hand reached out to me--into any kind of words. "Deborah Rachelle Bell!" I heard a voice boom from behind us. A moment later her father, the Reverend Elijah Bell, appeared, fully filling the space of the open doorway. His suit was tight, the shirt collar loosened, and he had a handkerchief in one hand, which he immediately pressed to his sweaty brow. "What in the world are you doing? People are waiting down there!" "I'm sorry, Daddy," Deborah wailed, and then I saw William, finally, climbing the stairs. Just as quickly he disappeared from view, though, blocked by the reverend's girth. "I just got scared." "Well, get it together," he told her, stepping inside. Clearly winded, he paused to take a breath or two before continuing. "I spent thirty thousand nonrefundable dollars of my hard-earned money on this wedding. If you don't walk down that aisle right now, I'll marry Lucas myself." At this, Deborah burst into fresh tears. As I put my hand out to her, helplessly patting a shoulder, William managed to squeeze past the reverend and approach us. Calm as always, he didn't look at me, his eyes on only the bride as he bent close to speak in her ear. She whispered a response as he began to move his hand in slow circles on her back, like you do for a fussy baby. I couldn't hear anything that was said, only the reverend still breathing. Other footsteps were audible on the stairs now, most likely bridesmaids, groomsmen, and others coming to rubberneck. Everyone liked to be part of the story, it seemed. I'd understood this once, but not so much anymore. Whatever William said had made Deborah smile, albeit shakily. But it was enough; she let him take her elbow and help her to her feet. While she looked down at her wrinkled dress, trying to shake out the folds, he leaned back into the hallway, beckoning down the stairs. A moment later the makeup artist appeared, her tackle box of products in hand. "Okay, everyone, let's give Deborah a second to freshen up," William announced to the room, just as, sure enough, one bridesmaid and then another poked their heads in. "Reverend, can you go tell everyone to take their places? We'll be down in two minutes." "You'd better be," the reverend said, pushing past him to the door, sending bridesmaids scattering in a flash of lavender. "Because I am not coming up those stairs again." "We'll be right outside," William told Deborah, gesturing for me to follow him. I did, pulling the door shut behind us. "I'm sorry," I said immediately. "That was beyond my skill set." "You did fine," he told me, pulling out his phone. Without even looking closely, I knew he was firing off a text to my mom in the code they used to ensure both speed and privacy. A second later, I heard a buzz as she wrote back. He scanned the screen, then said, "People are curious but there is a minimum of speculation noise, at least so far. It's going to be fine. We've got the eyelash as an explanation." I looked at my watch. "An eyelash can take fifteen minutes?" "It can take an hour, as far as anyone down there knows." He smoothed a wrinkle I couldn't even see out of his pants, then adjusted his red bow tie. "I wouldn't have pegged Deb as a cold-feeter. Shows what I know." "What did she say to you back there?" I asked him. He was listening to the noises beyond the door, alert, I knew, to the aural distinction between crying and getting makeup done. After a moment, he said, "Oh, she asked about true love. If I believed in it, does it last. Typical stuff pre-ceremony." "What did you say?" Now he looked at me, with that cool, confident countenance that made him, along with my mom, the best team in the Lakeview wedding business. "I said of course. I couldn't do this job if I didn't. Love is what it's all about." Wow , I thought. "You really believe that?" He shuddered. "Oh, God, no." Just then the door opened, revealing Deborah, makeup fixed, eyelash in place, dress seemingly perfect. She gave us a nervous smile, and even as I reciprocated I was more aware of William, beaming, than my own expression. "You look beautiful," he said. "Let's do this." He held out his hand to her and she took it, letting him guide her down the stairs. The makeup lady followed, sighing only loud enough for me to hear, and then I was alone. Down in the church lobby, my mother would be getting the wedding party into position, adjusting straps and lapels, fluffing bouquets, and straightening boutonnières. I looked back into the anteroom, where only a pile of crumpled tissues now remained. As I hurriedly collected them, I wondered how many other brides had felt the same way in this space, standing on the edge between their present and future, not quite ready to jump. I could sympathize, but only to a point. At least they got to make that choice for themselves. When, instead, it was done for you--well, that was something to really cry about. At any rate, now the organ music was rising, things beginning. I shut the door and headed downstairs. My mother picked up her wine. "I'm going to say seven years. Long enough for a couple of kids and an affair." "Interesting," William replied, holding his own glass aloft and studying it for a moment. Then he said, "I'll give it three. No children. But an amicable parting." "You think?" "I just get that feeling. Those feet were awfully cold, and asking about true love?" My mom considered this. "Point taken. I think you'll win this one. Cheers." They clinked glasses, then sat back in their chairs, each taking a solemn sip. After every wedding, when the bride and groom were gone and all the guests dispersed to their homes and hotels, my mom and William had one last ritual. They'd have a nightcap, recap the event, and lay bets on the marriage it produced. Their accuracy in predicting both outcome and duration was uncanny. And, to be honest, a little unsettling. To me, though, the real test was in the departure. There was just something so telling about that moment when everyone gathered to see the bride and groom off. It wasn't like the ceremony, where people were nervous and could hide things, or the reception, which was usually chaotic enough to blur details. With the leaving, months of planning were behind them, years of a life together ahead. Which was why I'd always made a point of watching their faces so carefully, taking note of fatigue, tears, or flickers of irritation. I didn't make a wager as much as a wish for them. I always wanted a happy ending for everyone else. Not that the clients would ever know this. It was the secret finish to what was known in our town of Lakeview as "A Natalie Barrett Wedding," an experience so valued by the newly engaged that both a spot on a waitlist and a huge fee were required to even be considered for one. My mom and William's price might be high, but they delivered, the results of their work bound in the four thick, embossed leather albums in their office sitting room. Each was packed with images of glowing brides and grooms getting married in every way possible: beachside, while barefoot. Lakeside, in black tie. At a winery. On top of a mountain. In their own (gorgeous, styled for the occasion) backyard. There were huge wedding parties and small intimate ones. Many billowing white dresses with trains, and some in other colors and cuts (signs, I'd found, of second or third marriages). The difference between a regular wedding and a Natalie Barrett one was akin to the difference between a pet store and a circus. A wedding was just two people getting married. A Natalie Barrett Wedding was an experience. The Deborah Bell Wedding--it was company policy that we referred to all planned events by the bride's name, as it was Her Day--was pretty much par for the course for us. The ceremony was at a church, the reception at a nearby hotel ballroom. There were five bridesmaids and five groomsmen, a ring bearer and a flower girl. Their choice of a live band was increasingly rare these days (my mother preferred a DJ: the fewer people to wrangle, the better) as was the dinner brought out by waiters (carving stations, buffets, and dessert bars had been more popular for years now). The night had wrapped up with fireworks, an increasingly popular request that added a permitting wrinkle but literally a final bang for the client's buck. Despite the earlier dramatics, Deborah had run to the limo clutching her new husband's hand, flushed and happy, smile wide. They'd been kissing as the door was shut behind them, to the obvious disapproval of the reverend, who had then dabbed his own eyes, his wife patting his arm, as the car pulled away. Good luck , I'd thought, as the tail lights turned out of sight. May you always have the answers to each other's most important questions. And then the wedding was over, for them, anyway. Not for us. First, there was this recap and wager, as well as a final check of the venue for lost items, misplaced wedding gifts, and passed out or, um, otherwise engaged guests (you'd be surprised--I know I always was). Then we would pack our cars with our clipboards and file folders, mending kits, double-stick tape, boxes of Kleenex, spare power strips, phone chargers, and Xanax (yep), and head home. We usually had exactly one day to recover, after which we were right back at the office in front of my mother's huge whiteboard, where she'd circle the next wedding up and it all began again. Despite how my mom and William joked otherwise--often--they loved this business. For them, it was a passion, and they were good at it. This had been the case long before I'd been old enough to work with them during the summers. As a kid, I'd colored behind my mother's huge desk while she took meetings with anxious brides about guest lists and seating arrangements. Now I sat alongside them, my own legal pad (in a Natalie Barrett Wedding leather folio, of course) in my lap, taking notes. This transition had always been expected, was basically inevitable. Weddings were the family business, and I was my mother's only family. Unless you counted William, which really, we did. They had met sixteen years earlier, when I was two years old and my dad had just walked out on us. At the time, my parents had been living in a cabin in the woods about ten miles outside Lakeview. There they raised chickens, had an organic garden, and made their own beeswax candles, which they sold at the local farmers' market on weekends. My dad, only twenty-two, had a full beard, rarely wore shoes, and was working on a chapbook of environmentally themed poems that had been in progress since before I'd even been conceived. My mom, a year younger, was full vegan, waited tables in the evenings at a nearby organic co-op café, and made rope bracelets blessed with "earth energy" on the side. They had met in college, at a campus protest against the public education system, which was, apparently, "oppressive, misogynist, cruel to animals, and evil." This was verbatim from the flyer I'd found in a box deep in my mother's closet that held the only things she'd kept from this time in her life other than me. Inside, besides the flyer, was a rather ugly beeswax candle, a rope bracelet that that been her "ring" at her own "wedding" (which had taken place in the mud at an outdoor music festival, officiated by a friend who signed the marriage certificate, also included, only as "King Wheee!"), and a single picture of my parents, both barefoot and tan, standing in a garden holding rakes. I sat on the ground beside my mother's feet, examining a cabbage leaf, completely naked. My name, an original, was a mix of their own, Natalie and Louis. I was Louna. The box in the closet holding these things was small for someone who had once had such big beliefs, and this always made me kind of sad. My mother, however, only reflected on this time of her life when clients wondered aloud if it really was worth spending an obscene amount of money for the wedding of their dreams. "Well, I was married in a mud pit by someone on magic mushrooms," she'd say, "and I think it doomed us from the start. But that's just me." Then she'd pause for a beat or two, giving the client in front of her enough time to try to imagine Natalie Barrett--with her expensive, tailored clothes, perfect hair and makeup, and ever-present diamond earrings, ring, and necklace--as some dirty hippie in a bad marriage. They couldn't, but that didn't stop them from signing on the contract's dotted line to make sure they wouldn't meet the same fate. Better safe than sorry. In truth, the reason for the demise of my parents' marriage was not the mud pit or the officiant, but my father. After three years in the woods making candles and "writing his poems" (my mother claimed she never once saw him put pen to paper) he'd grown tired of struggling. This wasn't surprising. Raised in San Francisco by a father who owned over a dozen luxury car dealerships, he'd not exactly been made for living off the land long term. Ever since he and my mom had exchanged vows, his own father told him that if he left the marriage--and, subsequently, the baby--he'd get a Porsche dealership of his own. My mom already believed that commerce was responsible for all of life's evils. When her true love took this offer, it got personal. Three years later, long estranged from us, he was killed in a car accident. I don't remember my mother crying or even really reacting, although she must have, in some way. Not me. You don't miss what you never knew. And I knew my mom, and only my mom. Not only did I look just like her--same features, dark hair, and olive skin--but I sometimes felt like we were the same person. Mostly because she'd been disowned by her own wealthy, elderly parents around the time of the mud pit marriage, so it was always just us. After my dad bailed, she sold the cabin and moved us into Lakeview, where, after bouncing around a few restaurant jobs, she got a position working at the registry department of Linens, Etc., the housewares chain. On the surface, it seemed like a weird fit, as it was hard to find a convention more commerce-driven than weddings. But she had a kid to feed, and in her previous life my mom had been a debutante and taken etiquette classes at the country club. This world might have disgusted her, but she knew it well. Before long, brides were requesting her when they came in to pick out china patterns or silverware. By the time William was hired a year later, my mom had a huge following. As she trained him, teaching him all she knew, they became best friends. There in the back of the store, they spent many hours with brides, listening to them talk--and often complain--about their wedding planning. As they learned which vendors were good and which weren't, they began keeping lists of numbers for local florists, caterers, and DJs to recommend. This expanded to advising more and more on specific events, and then planning a few weddings entirely. Meanwhile, over lunch hours and after-work drinks or dinner, they started to talk about going out on their own. A partnership on paper and a loan from William's mother later, they were in business. My mom had a fifty-one share, William forty-nine, and she got her name on the door. But the legalese basically ended there. Whatever foxhole a particular wedding was, they were in it together. They made dreams come true, they liked to tell each other and anyone else who would listen, and they weren't wrong. This ability never did cross over to their own love lives, however. My mom had barely dated since splitting with my dad, and when she did, she made a point of picking people she knew wouldn't stick around--"to take the guesswork out of it," in her words. Meanwhile William, who had been out since about age eight, had yet to meet any man who could come close to meeting his exacting standards. He dealt with this by also leaning toward less than ideal choices with no chance of long-term relationship potential. Real love didn't exist, they maintained, despite building an entire livelihood based on that very illusion. So why waste time looking for it? And besides, they had each other. Even as a kid, I knew this was dysfunctional. But unfortunately, I'd been indoctrinated from a young age with my mom and William's strong, oft-repeated cynical views on romance, forever, love, and other keywords. It was confusing, to say the least. On the one hand, I lived and breathed the wedding dream, dragged along to ceremonies and venues, privy to meetings on every excruciating detail from Save the Date cards to cake toppers. But away from the clients and the work, there was a constant, repetitive commentary about how it was a sham, no good men really existed, and we were all better off alone. It was no wonder that a few years earlier, when my best friend Jilly had suddenly gone completely boy-crazy, I'd been reluctant to join her. I was a fourteen-year-old girl with the world-weariness of a bitter midlife divorcée, repeating all the things I'd heard over and over, like a mantra. "Well, he'll only disappoint you, so you should just expect it," I'd say, shaking my head as she texted with some thick-necked soccer player. Or I'd warn: "Don't give what you're not ready to lose," when she considered, with great drama, whether to confess to a boy that she "liked" him. My peers might have been flirting either in pairs or big groups, but I stood apart, figuratively and literally, the buzzkill at the end of every rom-com movie or final chorus of a love song. After all, I'd learned from the best. It wasn't my fault, which did not make it any less annoying. But then, the previous summer, on a hot August night, all of that had changed. Suddenly, I did believe, at least for a little while. The result was the most broken of hearts, made even worse by the knowledge that I had no one to blame for it but myself. If I'd only walked away, said no twice instead of only once, gone home to my bed and left that wide stretch of stars behind when I had the chance. Oh, well. Now my mother downed the rest of her drink and put her glass aside. "Past midnight," she observed, taking a glance at her watch. "Are we ready to go?" "One last sweep and we will be," William replied, standing up and brushing off his suit. As a rule, we all dressed for events as if we were guests, but modest ones. The goal was to blend in, but not too much. Like everything in this business, a delicate balance. "Louna, you take the lobby and outside. I'll check here and the bathrooms." I nodded, then headed across the ballroom, now empty except for a few servers stacking chairs and clearing glasses. The lights were bright overhead, and as I walked I could see flower petals and crumpled napkins here and there on the floor, along with a few stray glasses and beer cans. Outside, the lobby was deserted, except for some guy leaning out a half-open door with a cigar, under a NO SMOKING sign. I continued out the front doors, where the night felt cool. The parking lot was quiet as well, no one around. Or so I thought, until I started back in and glimpsed one of Deborah's bridesmaids, a tall black girl with braids and a nose ring--Malika? Malina?--standing by a nearby planter. She had a tissue in her hand and was dabbing at her eyes, and I wondered, not for the first time, what it was about weddings that made everything so emotional. It was like tears were contagious. She looked up suddenly, seeing me. I raised my eyebrows, and she gave me a sad smile, shaking her head: she didn't need my help. There are times when you intervene and times when you don't, and I'd long ago learned the difference. Some people like their sadness out in the open, but the vast majority prefer to cry alone. Unless it was my job to do otherwise, I'd let them. Excerpted from Once and for All by Sarah Dessen All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.