The scream of frustration was shrill but short-lived. It came from the bride's room. It was Saturday, December 10th. Elise Gilbert, who was not a member of the wedding party but the date of the bride's brother Franklyn, heard the shriek as she walked past the door on the way back from the bathroom. She stopped and listened.
No more screams. She was concerned, but didn't want to barge in if there was nothing seriously wrong. But then another, longer, scream came from the other side of the door.
Elise immediately turned the doorknob, found the door unlocked and strode into the room.
Erica Bryant, the bride, was standing in front of a full-length mirror in her wedding dress and holding her side, where a long rip revealed the skin of her midriff. Her short black hair was freshly washed but not yet styled.
She looked at Elise with a panicked expression. "I don't know how this happened. The seam ripped open like tissue paper. What am I going to do!"
Elise closed the door behind her and walked farther into the room. She and Erica were both in their late twenties. Elise was taller by a couple of inches and also weighed more than Erica. They didn't seem to have much in common. Elise had just started dating Erica's brother, and she and Erica had met on only two occasions, so she was a little reluctant to offer advice on Erica's wedding day; she might not take it well.
Elise gently clasped the torn sides of the dress, assessing the damage.
Thankfully, it was just a matter of the stitches coming undone. It wasn't the first time a seamstress had had her sewing machine malfunction and not perform its job adequately. The length of the stitches was, she noticed, too long, and when Erica had put on the dress, putting stress on the seams, they had naturally split.
Elise smiled. "It's not as bad as it appears. Do you have a sewing machine?"
They were in Glen Ellen, California, at the hacienda-style home of Eric and Simone Bryant, Erica's parents. The Bryants were winemakers, proprietors of one of the few African-American-owned wineries in the country.
Erica shook her head. "No, that's not a skill Mom or I ever had an interest in learning."
"Needle and thread?" Elise asked. She could repair the dress by hand. It would just take longer.
"Yes," Erica said, brightening. "Oh, Elise, if you can fix this mess I'd be eternally grateful. You've already come through with that beautiful cake!"
"It was my pleasure," Elise assured her with a smile. "If you'll take the dress off and go get the needle and thread, I'll check out the damage while you're gone."
She placed her purse on the canopied bed and sat down. "I can't believe this is happening to me," Erica said, her voice muffled due to the dress covering her head. "I should have known some disaster would strike me. Things have been going way too smoothly."
She handed the dress to Elise, then looked at her reflection in the mirror. "Maybe I've gained weight since my last fitting."
"That's not it," Elise said. She told her about the faulty stitches. "My mom does a lot of sewing. She taught my sisters and me. This is not your doing."
Erica breathed a sigh of relief and fairly beamed at Elise. She liked Elise. She didn't want to be too demonstrative, though, because she didn't want to chase the poor girl off. She tried not to grin too widely when she saw Elise and Franklyn together. The sight of Franklyn in love made her so happy, she felt like doing triple somersaults. It had been a long time coming.
According to Lettie Burrows, Franklyn's sous chef and a close friend of the family, Franklyn had been head over heels in love with Elise for nearly three years. If not for Lettie's keen observations, Erica and her mother, Simone, might not have known about Franklyn's attraction to Elise. Franklyn was painfully shy.
Erica had thought it was a minor miracle when he'd had the nerve to ask Elise to the harvest celebration here at the winery a few months ago. Later, it had been her idea to ask Elise, a pastry chef, to make their cake. Now Franklyn had brought her with him to their wedding. A man didn't ask a woman to a wedding unless he was serious about her.
"I'll be right back," Erica said as she slipped on a bathrobe and headed for the door.
Elise was busy studying the material where the seam had come apart. "All right," she said, then peered back down at the dress. There wasn't any damage to the material, so if she stitched it closed, Erica should have no more problems with seams ripping.
Erica was back with the needle and a spool of thread in less than three minutes.
Elise accepted them, held the thread against the dress. The color was a close match.
Erica watched her as she threaded the needle, secured a knot in the end and began sewing the seam closed.
Erica took the opportunity to observe her. She was really attractive, though not in a glamorous way. Her brown skin had red undertones, and was healthy-looking.
She had a sprinkling of freckles across her nose that gave her a youthful appearance.
The eyes in her heart-shaped, high-cheekboned face, were dark and intelligent.
She had full, bow-shaped lips that were tinted rose-red and, at the moment, were pursed as she sewed. Her thick, jet-black, shoulder-length hair was straightened and combed back from a widow's peak.
It looked very nice in the relaxed, upswept style she was wearing.
Erica didn't spend much time assessing other women's facial features, but she readily admitted that Elise had the type of face that most men would be drawn to.
And she looked fit. Erica remembered Franklyn saying that Elise biked nearly every day. No wonder she had such great legs.
Sitting across from Elise on the bed, Erica said, "May I ask you a personal question? Just tell me to mind my own business if you don't want to answer."
Elise briefly met Erica's eyes before lowering her gaze again to her sewing. "Go ahead," she said cautiously.
"You've been married before, right?"
Elise nodded. She didn't like talking about Derrick. She was content to leave him in the past, an afterthought, a vague notion, someone she didn't waste her brain cells on anymore. But she tried not to frown when Erica brought him up. She wanted to make a good impression on Franklyn's family. She liked them and hoped they would learn to like her eventually.
Erica was reluctant to go on probing unless she got some kind of signal from Elise that it was okay to proceed. And Elise was looking down at the dress in her hands.
Erica cleared her throat.
Elise looked up again. "I divorced him more than four years ago when I was twenty-five."
"You divorced him?"
"Yes. Actually, he left me after he passed the bar exam, but he was dragging his feet about divorcing me. So, I got things rolling instead. You would have to know Derrick Scott--I took my name back after the divorce--to understand why that was so important to me. He was controlling and abusive..."
"He hit you?" Erica cried, shocked.
"No, what he did was worse." Elise met Erica's eyes. "A punch in the face eventually heals. The wounds he inflicted on me were more than skin-deep. He was a master at derision and insults. He belittled me. Tore down my self-esteem. It was his goal to break me. But luckily, I recognized his intent and got out in time. Still, it's taken me a long time to be able to trust another man."
"Franklyn would never do anything like that!" Erica vehemently declared. "I know," Elise said with a warm smile. "Your brother is the gentlest man I've ever known."
Erica smiled back, content. "Yes, yes he is." Franklyn was special, a genuinely good man. Looking into Elise's eyes, she knew she didn't have to tell her that.
Instead, she got to her feet, and began pacing the room. "Know what I wish we women had? A Girlfriend's Network!" Her brown eyes sparkled with excitement as she continued, still pacing. "Whenever one of our girlfriends got mistreated by some heartless guy, we'd spring into action. Maybe he'd be at a cocktail party and a gorgeous woman would walk up to him and ask, "Is your name Derrick Scott?" He'd smile roguishly, because like most men, he'd think he was about to score. "Yes," he'd proudly say, flashing a sexy smile while he confidently popped a shrimp puff into his mouth. All of a sudden, the babe would pimp-slap him! The shrimp puff would fly in one direction and his smug face would turn in the other. By the time his eyes got uncrossed, the anonymous babe would be gone, lost in the crowd. A drive-by pimp-slapping! Girl, that would be so cool!"
When Erica finished, Elise was laughing so hard tears were rolling down her face.
"I'd pay good money to see that," she said.
"You and your girlfriends never got even with him?" Erica wanted to know.
"My cousin, Mariel, wanted to slash his tires," Elise said, smiling at the memory.
Mariel always had her back. "But I talked her out of it. I was satisfied just being divorced from him. I felt as if the life was slowly coming back into me."
"He was a soul-sucker, huh?"
"The worst kind of soul-sucker. He was so good at it he could make you think you deserved every mean, vile thing he said to you. I pity the woman who's with him now."
Erica sat on the bed. "Do you ever see him?"
Elise groaned. "Unfortunately, yes. He lives in San Francisco, and we still have mutual friends. Most of the time, though, we're not invited to the same parties. Our friends have learned to keep us apart as much as possible. But, maybe once a year, I still see him. When we spot each other either I'll leave if I got there last, or he'll leave if he got there last."
"Sort of a silent agreement?"
"Yes. I don't think he really wants to be in the same room with me for too long. I might explode and embarrass him. He hates public spectacles. Thinks they're beneath him."
She finished sewing the seam, and handed the dress to Erica. "Go ahead,...