"Me? A model? You've got to be kidding."
Janica Ellis's lower lip trembled. "Please, Lily. Sonia has the stomach flu. She was my only plus-sized model. You're my last hope." Gesturing to the skimpy, colorful dresses hanging from the rack beside her, she added, "This is my big break. My first big fashion show with major buyers in the audience. You just need to model one dress for me."
Under most circumstances, Lily Ellis would do anything to help out her little sister. But not when "anything" included showcasing her un-model-perfect size-sixteen body under glaring lights while tottering down a runway in stiletto heels. Already she could hear the baffled whispers from the audience of, "What is that cow doing up on the stage?" She would pass out from humiliation.
She already felt painfully uncool among this cutting-edge crowd of designers and artists. Just walking the two busy city blocks from the parking garage to the Moscone Center in the very hip San Francisco, South of Market area, was enough to make Lily feel like she had the word "boring" stamped across her chest.
Shaking her head forcefully, Lily raised her voice over the din of the models, makeup artists, and designers backstage. "I came to sit in the audience and applaud your incredible clothes, not to put on a skintight, see-through dress and parade around like a lumbering elephant."
So then why, Lily wondered moments later, am I being poked with pins and made up by an androgynous makeup artist?
A sarcastic inner voice wasted no time in replying, Because you're a lily-livered pushover, that's why.
How apt the name Lily was. Even among flowers, lilies were overly large. If she had been named Petunia or Violet, would she have been petite and cute, with a button nose and straight brown hair? In her daydreams, Lily was a reed-slim, perfectly toned size six, with straight blond hair and sparkling blue eyes, who everyone gazed at with envy. Just like the women on the Pilates infomercials that she watched late at night alone in her apartment. As it was, all she had going for her was the blue eyes. But given the fact that they were on her face, Lily figured they might as well have been mud brown. And as far as Lily was concerned, her out-of-control curly red hair and pale skin didn't help matters any. She slumped her shoulders in defeat.
Janica grunted with displeasure and forcefully pushed Lily's shoulder blades together. "You need to keep your back straight for me to get the fit right."
But when Lily looked in the mirror and saw nothing but a huge pair of breasts encased in a wildly printed sheer mesh fabric, she choked on a hysterical laugh.
"Janica, stop," she pleaded. "My chest looks like the spinnaker of a large ship."
Her sister glanced into the mirror, and insisted, "It does not."
Because of the barely masked worry in Janica's eyes, Lily wished she had kept her mouth shut. Trying to make her baby sister laugh, Lily said, "Don't worry, Jan. Swashbuckling pirates always hightail it toward small, cute girls with twenty-inch waists and French manicures, so your dress should come through the salty seas just fine."
Around a mouthful of pins Janica giggled. "Lils, you've got an overactive imagination. Pirate ships and salty seas. Your creative talents are definitely wasted at Barker's Furniture. Besides, most women would kill to have boobs like yours." Janica gestured to her A cups. "Like me, for instance. Besides, who wouldn't want your gorgeous curls and your peaches-and-cream coloring? Which, if you hadn't already noticed, is perfectly highlighted by this fabric." Janica took a step back to study Lily more closely and sucked in a breath. "Wow, you look incredible. You're going to blow all of the other models away up there. It's as if I made this dress just for you."
Lily opened her mouth to disagree with her sister's compliments when the makeup artist bit out, "Hold your head still. I'm doing your lip line now."
Hardly daring to breathe, Lily decided that a few minutes of extreme public humiliation was worth it if it could make the person she loved most in the world happy. Lily thought back to the day Janica had made her first dress, nearly twenty years ago, when they had gone to live with Grandma Ellen after their parents' death. Only ten years old herself, Lily had been so proud of her talented, sparkling five-year-old sister. Every now and then when it felt like Janica was growing up and getting further and further away from her, Lily pulled the soft red-and-white gingham sundress out from the dusty box underneath her bed and rubbed the fabric against her cheek.
You are going to have to suck it up and pull yourself together, Lily told herself in a firm voice, when a size-zero model skipped by, all long legs and pouty lips.
Lily promptly lost hold of her false confidence. Her legs trembled, and the dress fluttered around her knees, mimicking the quivering in her stomach.
"Would it help if Luke was here to cheer you on?" Janica asked with concern.
Lily stopped chewing on her lip. No question about it, her best friend Luke was exactly the right person to see her through this terrible ordeal. He would make some silly joke about the whole thing, and she'd forget about how big and jiggly and stupid she felt wrapped up in high fashion, like Jell-O in cellophane. Maybe they could go see that new Queen Latifah movie when the whole thing was over. Lily loved any actress who had a full figure. It proved that other women had curves, too.
Feeling slightly calmer, Lily nodded and pinned a falsely bright smile on her face as she grabbed Janica's cell phone and dialed Luke's number. She quickly explained the situation to him and felt a thousand times better after she hung up.
Thank God for her best friend. He would never let her down.
Luke Carson closed his cell phone with a snap, stood up, and threw down a twenty. "Sorry to drink and run, bro, but I've got more important things to do right now."
"Gotta get on your white horse again?" Travis Carson asked, his full mouth twisting at the corners.
Luke ignored Travis, like he had ignored him for the past thirty years whenever he was being a total jerk. So, as he had for the past three decades, Travis kept digging away at his younger-by-sixty-seconds brother.
"You never should have rescued her cat from up in the tree in first grade," Travis drawled. "It set a bad precedent. A really bad precedent."
Travis took a slug of his beer but kept his eye on his twin brother to gauge his reaction to the ribbing. Luke had been best friends with Lily for nearly twenty-five years. Travis wondered why they weren't married yet.
Or at least doing the nasty on a regular basis.
Because even though they almost never talked about Lily, and Travis made it a point to avoid her whenever possible, more often than not Luke couldn't hang out with the guys because he already had plans with Lily.
"You might as well admit that she's your girlfriend, already."
"I would if she was," Luke said, not the least bit bothered by Travis's jibes. "I'll see you for some one-on-one basketball tomorrow," Luke added, but before he walked away from the table he was interrupted by the insistent ring of his cell phone.
Luke flipped open the cover. "Now? You're kidding? No, don't worry, I'll be there in ten." He turned his bright green eyes to Travis.
Travis put down his empty beer bottle and shook his head. "You know I hate it when you look at me like that. And the answer is no."
Luke gave Travis a conciliatory smile. "She needs me, Travis. And since I've got to be in the ER, you need to be me." At Travis's skeptical glance, Luke said, "Remember how often we pulled this off when we were kids? Besides, I'm sure it'll be dark in there. Sit close enough that she'll be able to see you."
"But not close enough that she gets a good look at me," Travis finished for him. "I still know the drill."
"And be sure to wave when she looks over. Hopefully, it'll be dark enough in the audience that she won't realize that I'm you until the show's over."
"Sounds like a good plan," Travis said, then shook his head. "But I've got a date."
"I'll personally call Bimbos Are Us and cancel for you," Luke said. "And to sweeten the deal, tomorrow afternoon I'll let you beat me at hoops."
Travis thought about what being stuck with Lily all night would be like. Definitely boring. Especially compared to what he had been planning to do with the stacked brunette bartender who had already given him her number. Now there was a woman who a guy could have a good time with.
But another glance at his twin was enough to convince Travis that he needed to do it in the name of brotherhood. Even though they didn't always see eye to eye, Luke was the one person Travis would do anything for. Travis considered himself to be a pretty nice guy, all in all. He did volunteer work building homes for the needy, and no matter how busy he was he always kicked the soccer ball around with whatever kid was hanging out on the street in front of his house.
Feeling noble, Travis agreed to step into his brother's shoes for the night. "Okay. I'll do it. But I'll beat you tomorrow on the blacktop fair and square."
Luke slapped him on the shoulder. "I knew I could count on you. In any case, this should be right up your alley. You're going to a fashion show downtown. Moscone Center."
Travis laughed out loud. "Lily is in a fashion show? She barely has the guts to walk down the street, let alone a runway."
"Watch it, Travis," Luke warned, his hand already in a tight fist.
Travis took a step backward. Luke didn't have much of a sense of humor when it came to Lily. "I'm kidding," he said. He might have been a minute older than Luke, but his twin had a mean right hook.
Luke uncurled his fingers and took a step back. "I hope she'll forgive me for sending you in my place tonight." Luke ran his fingers through his dark hair. "Although I have a feeling that if she figures out that I'm you, she may never speak to me again."
Travis tried to ignore the sting of being told just how much Lily disliked him. What did he care? After all, he was the one who had broken ties with her long ago. When they were ten years old Luke had tried to ask Travis why he didn't want to be friends with Lily anymore, especially since they had all been such good friends up until fifth grade. But since Travis never answered, Luke stopped asking.
"I'll bet her spoiled-rotten little sister is using and abusing her again," Luke said. "She needs someone on her team tonight. I wish I could be there, but the ER is jammed."
Travis felt a twinge of sympathy for Lily, but then caught himself and quickly squashed the sentiment. Women were great for a night out on the town and getting sweaty with between the sheets. Not for emotional entanglement. Travis couldn't imagine being shackled to one woman for the rest of his life.
"Try to be nice for once, Trav," Luke added, his eyes promising serious consequences should Travis do anything to upset Lily.
Travis gave his twin a look of wide-eyed innocence. "Don't worry about it. With all of those models around, I'm definitely going to be on my best behavior."
"I'll bet," Luke muttered as he led the way out of the bar and hailed a cab to the hospital. Travis grinned at his brother's back, as always delighting in irking his twin. But then Travis thought about watching Lily make a fool of herself in a fashion show, and his delight disappeared.
He hopped into the next available cab and fifteen minutes later he was smack-dab in the middle of the unbridled sights and sounds of downtown San Francisco. He soaked up the chaos on the streets, the traffic jams and loud stereos booming from the markets and upstairs apartments.
I haven't been living wild enough lately, he realized. Too many nights burning the midnight oil over blueprints in the office were to blame.
Not that he was complaining about the success of his architectural firm. On the contrary, Travis thrived on the competition and cutting-edge creativity entailed in building worlds for his clients to live in. A natural-born salesperson, Travis had never had a client say no to him. He loved the precision of designing and building the perfect structure and was known for clean lines and sweeping vistas.
The cab stopped in front of the Moscone Center, and Travis paid the driver. He gave his brother's name to the bouncer at the door and walked onto the huge dance floor, taking a moment to get used to the rainbow of lights and earsplitting Electronica booming from the speakers on the ceilings. Three lithe women walked past him, the boldest one in the skimpiest dress eying him up and down, making it clear that she liked what she saw. Travis grinned. Maybe tonight wasn't going to be such a waste after all.
After he was done pretending to be Luke, he was going to take home a cute little thing in a thong. Models weren't the greatest lays -- they were too busy putting themselves in flattering positions to get really steamy in the sack -- but they sure were nice to look at. And Travis greatly enjoyed looking at pretty things.
He grabbed a martini from a passing waiter and looked for an open seat far enough from the stage for Lily to think he was his twin brother if she glanced in his direction. No one had ever been able to tell them apart, so Travis wasn't worried about fooling her. In any case he was pretty sure her nerves would turn the audience into one big blur of faces. How could she possibly pick him out of the crowd? Regardless, as soon as she made it backstage in one piece he was out of there. And then Luke could go back to his seemingly full-time job of picking up Lily's pieces.
Spotting an empty chair between a petite blonde and a built brunette, Travis made his way over to it. He took off his leather jacket and propped one jeans-clad leg up on the back of a chair, letting the gin work its way down his throat.
Travis watched the tiny blonde to his left take in his well-defined biceps and triceps, the washboard stomach beneath his thin T-shirt, and long-past-five-o'clock shadow. He knew he looked like he visited the gym on a daily basis, but the truth was he'd been blessed with good genes. The only reason he ever hit the gym was to convince some hot young thing to swap reaching her target heart rate on the treadmill in favor of exceeding it as she came beneath him. He much preferred playing a game of pickup basketball to any kind of organized exercise regime.
"Hi, handsome," the blonde said, her gaze on the bulge between his legs.
You should see how big it is when I'm turned on, he thought silently as he cocked an eyebrow and raised his martini glass in greeting.
Coyly, she asked, "Are you with one of the models?"
Taking his time to answer, Travis ran his tongue over his lower lip to lick off the lingering liquor. The blonde watched the progression with obvious hunger.
"Not exactly," he said.
She leaned in close, giving Travis the chance to look straight into her cleavage.
She's a B cup, maybe C, Travis thought with disinterest.
Travis noted his apathy with surprise. Not interested in a hot, perfect specimen of a woman who was offering him exactly what he wanted? Not jumping at the offer of no-holds-barred, anonymous sex?
He had definitely been putting in too many long hours in the office.
The music jumped by ten decibels as the first model hit the stage. Travis slumped farther down in the chair, already counting the seconds until the show was over and he could get the blonde or the brunette -- or both -- into bed.
Luke's voice played in his head, saying, "Try to be nice for once." He didn't know why Lily pushed all of his wrong buttons, just that she did. It was everything about her, from her round body to her meek mouth and fluffy red hair. Even her blue eyes seemed too big on her face.
But most of all, Travis couldn't stand the way she hung all over his twin. Not to mention the fact that Luke didn't seem to mind. Travis shook his head and drained his martini glass. How his brother could be such close friends with such a Goody Two-shoes he'd never understand. But then again, Luke had always been the caretaker, the kind of guy who supported the underdog. Somehow Luke had gotten all of the nice genes in their mother's womb.
Travis smiled and relaxed back into his seat, perfectly comfortable with who he was, inside and out. The only thorn in his side was Lily. For some reason he was always ill at ease when she was in the same room with him. He could feel her eyes on him, almost as if she were seeing things he didn't intend for anyone to see.
Which was ridiculous, he knew. Travis didn't have any secrets. As far as he was concerned, he was an open book. He worked hard, played hard, and made no apologies for anything he did, because there was nothing to apologize for.
Regardless, for the next hour, he had to pretend to be on Lily's team, or his brother would have his butt on a spear. He composed his angled jaw and green eyes into a mask of interest and support, all the while thinking about how good the blonde's silicone-injected lips were going to feel wrapped around his cock.
Lily's feet were killing her in the four-inch spike heels, and she wished she could sit down, but she was afraid she'd wrinkle the dress. And then Janica would definitely kill her. She leaned against the wall, her heart pounding a mile a minute.
Lily, who never, ever drank -- she was sure she'd say or do something she couldn't take back in the morning if she let her guard down for even one night -- knew that she shouldn't drink any of the plentiful alcohol backstage. But she was so nervous that when the makeup artist thrust a glass of champagne into her hands, and ordered, "Drink this or you'll look like a ghost out there with such a white face," all Lily could do was gulp it down. The empty glass was instantly replaced with a full one.
She still couldn't tell if the makeup artist was a he or a she, but as the fizzy liquid made its way down her throat into her flip-flopping belly, Lily hardly cared anymore. She took another large swallow of the sweet, tart champagne and felt infinitely better.
"Luke's here," Janica said after popping her head from between the curtains. "He's on the right side of the stage, four rows back."
Lily smiled and tried to give her sister a thumbs-up, forgetting that she was holding on to the champagne glass. Her head buzzed and she looked at the upside-down empty glass in surprise.
Janica rushed over. "What are you doing? You're not getting drunk are you?"
"No," Lily said, her cheeks flushing. "I didn't even want to drink it," she insisted as she handed the empty glass over, her every move overly precise.
"That's funny, 'cause your glass is empty," Janica said, sarcasm dripping off every word. "You know you can't hold your liquor."
"Oh," was all Lily could say.
Janica looked like she was going to scream with irritation, but instead she threw her arms around Lily, opting for a pep talk instead. "Thanks so much for doing this for me. I know how much you hate being in front of crowds, but you are going to do so great out there tonight. Have I mentioned lately how you're the best big sister in the whole world?"
Lily sobered up a little and put on a brave face. "Don't worry about me, honey. I'm going to do you proud. I promise." She shooed Janica off. "Go on. Your line is up next. Get back to work."
Janica dropped a light kiss on Lily's cheek and scurried off to make sure her lead models were ready to walk. Lily started to rub her eyes wearily, but remembered at the last minute all the makeup she was wearing. A waiter rounded the corner with a tray of champagne and her hand shot out, seemingly of its own accord.
"One more couldn't hurt," she said as she brought the rim of the glass to her lips. Besides, all of a sudden being a runway model for a night didn't seem so bad. She only had to make it down to the end of the plank to pose for pictures. It would take sixty seconds, tops, then she'd go find Luke and they would have a good laugh about it all.
Just so long as he didn't bring his twin brother with him. When Travis gave her one of his disdainful looks, or worse yet, ignored her completely, it made her feel like dirt. Less important than dirt, even.
Lily didn't know how two people could be less alike. It was especially strange considering Luke and Travis were identical twins. Luke was warmhearted, fun, and nonjudgmental. On the other end of the spectrum, there was Travis, with his piercing verdicts. Lily had been watching him from afar for long enough to know that all he cared about was pleasing himself and looking at pretty things. And that, Lily knew, was the crux of the problem between her and Travis.
She wasn't pretty enough for him. Or thin enough. Or perky enough. And none of those things were ever going to change.
As kids, she and Luke and Travis had been inseparable. The three musketeers. But then the boys' mom died when they were ten, and everything changed. No, she thought with a sigh, not everything. She and Luke had remained incredibly close, best friends to this day. But Travis had never been the same after that. And no matter how much she wanted her old relationship with Travis back, no matter how much she tried to let him know she was there for him, Travis kept rejecting her. Turning his back on her. Lily told herself she had given up on him, but in her heart of hearts, she knew it wasn't true.
Could you ever completely give up on someone that you loved? From her painful experience with Travis, Lily didn't think so.
Janica ran back to Lily, breathless, and stuck something in her free hand. "I almost forgot to give you this."
"What is it?" Lily said as she grasped the edge of a purple feather.
"It's your mask. Actually, I should probably put it on for you so that you don't mess up your hair or makeup." Janica slid the mask down over Lily's riot of red curls, gently laying it against her face and tying the ribbon behind her head.
"Wow," Janica breathed. "I thought you looked amazing before, but now you look..." Her words fell away, and Lily's heart raced with renewed panic.
"Like an old lady on Halloween?" Lily said, mocking herself.
Janica shook her head. "God no. Not at all. You look like royalty. Like a queen!"
The words were no sooner out of Janica's mouth than the stage manager grabbed her by the shoulder. "You're on in sixty seconds," he said, and Janica turned and ran to get her first model ready to walk.
I look like royalty? Like a queen? The words swam around in Lily's already muddled-by-bubbly brain. A part of her wanted to turn around and look in a mirror to see if her little sister was telling the truth, but the other bigger part of her that never ever shut up was scornful, like always.
More like queen-size, that part of her said.
On any other night, Lily would have believed the voice. Being beautiful was laughable. She had spent a lifetime with her shoulders hunched to hide her too-big breasts and her hair hanging over her face to hide blue eyes too bright and red lips too big. But suddenly, an unfamiliar feeling of boldness swept through her from the tips of her toes to the feathered mask on her made-up face.
Grabbing another glass of champagne off the tray of a passing waiter, she swallowed it in one gulp, letting the now-familiar warmth and easiness flow through her. Without giving herself another moment to doubt, she turned around to the full-length mirror behind her.
Lily gasped. The woman staring back at her was a stranger.
A beautiful, stunning, sexy stranger.
Her hands flew to her hair, which had been brushed and lacquered until her curls looked better than those in any hair commercial ever did, shiny and glowing as they cascaded past her shoulders. Behind the mask, her eyes shone like the blue of the Caribbean, and her lips looked full and kissable.
She looked just right. Not too big. Not too small. Curvy in all the right places, her large breasts and round hips nicely offset by her waist.
But even as she surveyed herself in the mirror, Lily knew that Janica's dress was responsible for the amazing change. She had always known that her sister was incredibly talented, but to see how Janica's dress had turned Lily from supersize to just right shocked her to the core.
One of the models in Janica's show stepped up behind Lily in the mirror, the model's long, ultrathin limbs showcased by the short, strapless dress she was wearing. "Wow, you look amazing," she said to Lily.
The words "thank you" popped out of Lily's mouth, and she bit her lip in surprise. When was the last time she had actually accepted a compliment?
More to the point, when was the last time she had actually believed a compliment?
The model walked away, and Janica called to Lily from several feet away. "You need to get in line behind Ellen."
Lily took a deep breath and a crazy thought popped into her head. What if she acted like a model while she was out on the runway? What if she decided to be supersexy for a few minutes in her life? Who would it hurt?
Maybe with some help from The Dress she could be invincible.
She had seen the rehearsals and knew that the original plus-sized model had planned on shimmying and swaying to the music as she made her way down the runway. Janica hadn't asked her to try it, knowing that Lily would have definitely said no.
The Dress would really shine if the audience saw how well it moved over the curves and valleys of a real woman's figure.
With only seconds to go before she walked out onto the runway, Lily made up her mind. She would do it.
For as long as she had The Dress on she would behave like a queen.
A sexy, take-no-prisoners queen.
And then when the night was over, she would go back to being the same old Lily she had always been, having had a taste of something dangerous and wild to savor for the rest of her life.
Copyright © 2005 by Bella Andre