The moment Chase Etheridge turned into Errol Street the fine hairs on the back of his neck snapped to attention.
Bad enough driving through North Melbourne, the suburb he'd once called home, but this particular street held more than long suppressed memories.
Errol Street encapsulated everything he'd run from, everything he'd rather forget.
Yet here he was edging through traffic, searching for a parking spot, trying to concentrate on the road and obliterate the memories running through his mind like a rerun of a B grade movie.
Riding his bike down to Arden Street to watch his beloved Kangaroos footy team train, walking to the local primary school, picking up Cari from a friend's: not bad memories so much as snapshots of his past. A past where he'd raised Cari and taken on far too much responsibility from a young age. A past filled with making school lunches, correcting homework and cooking dinners. A past where he hadn't had a chance to be a kid.
Though some good had come out of it. Cari adored him and the feeling was mutual. He'd do anything for his sister, the sole reason he was here.
Easing his Jag into a prime parking space, he ignored the uncharacteristic twist of nerves in his gut. Him, nervous? Laughable, as any of his employees at Dazzle would attest to.
Make millions? Take the entertainment industry by storm? Be the best in the business? Could do it with his eyes closed. He didn't have time to be nervous yet striding up a rejuvenated Errol Street, packed with trendy cafes and boutiques and far removed from the street he remembered, he couldn't help but feel a touch anxious.
If being back here wasn't bad enough, strolling into some fancy schmancy vintage shop with the aim of organising his sister's hen's night was enough to send a shiver of dread through the hardest of men.
His mobile beeped and he answered a text message from his PA, one eye on his smartphone, the other on the shopfronts until he spotted his destination.
Written in candy cane pink in a curly font against a backdrop of shoes and hats and lipsticks, he'd rather be anywhere else but he had business to conduct and that was one thing he did well.
Firing off another message to Jerrie, he nudged the door open with his butt and entered the shop, mentally calculating profit margins and new dates in response to his uber efficient PA's next question.
A tiny bell tinkled overhead but he didn't look up, frowning as Jerrie emailed him the updated guest list for tonight's modelling agency launch.
He held up a finger, not ready to be interrupted while dealing with this latest problem.
'We don't allow mobile phones in here.'
He should've known. A shop dealing in retro stuff would live in the Dark Ages.
'Just give me a minute'
'Sorry, Retro rules.'
Before he could argue the phone was plucked out of his hands and he finally glanced up, ready to blast the cheeky shop assistant.
'How dare you
The rest of his rebuttal died on his lips as his angry glare clashed with the biggest, softest brown eyes he'd ever seen, fringed in illegally long eyelashes that added to an air of fragility.
Not many people stood up to him let alone a five foot six curvaceous blonde who looked as if she'd stepped out of the fifties with her hair pinned up in curls and held back by a headband the same polka dot material as her rock and roll dress.
'I dare because I'm the owner, and rules are rules.'
She pocketed his smartphone, hiding it in the side pocket of a voluminous skirt and having the audacity to smile.
'You'll get it back when you leave. Now, is there anything I can help you with?'
Frowning, he was on the verge of demanding his phone back and marching right back out of here, Cari's hen's night or not, when he caught a glimmer of fear behind those lashings of mascara.
For all her boldness in playing enforcer, the owner of all this frippery didn't like playing the big, bad boss. Something he could identify with so he settled for thrusting his hands into his pockets and glancing around, seeing the place for the first time.
Riotous colour assaulted his senses: fake pink roses stuck on black pillbox hats, orange and teal gloves spilling out of floral boxes, emerald feather boas draped over satin clad mannequins and primrose paisley scarves only a small sampling of the merchandise cramming every nook and cranny of the store.
To his discerning eye, which much preferred sleek modern lines in everything from furniture to fashion, this place was his worst nightmare.
'Can I help you with something specific? An item of clothing? Accessories? A special something for your wife?'
'I don't have a partner,' he said, a blinder of a headache building behind his eyes as he stared at the incredible visual assault of florals and flounces and feathers, glitter and gowns and gaudy baubles that twinkled beneath the muted down-lights, the only concession to the twenty-first century in the entire place.
'Oh. Right. Well, we cater to all types,' she said, a hint of amusement in her low tone as she sized him up and he puffed up in indignation.
'I'm not here for me.'
'Nothing to be ashamed of. You're welcome to try on anything you fancy.'
He gaped before snapping his jaw shut. He'd been mistaken for many things in his lifetime; a cross dresser wasn't one of them.
'Are you always this forward with your customers?'
'Only the recalcitrant ones.'
Her encouraging smile lit up her face, adding a sparkle to her eyes and transforming her from simply pretty to beautiful.
'Well, I hate to burst your sales pitch bubble but the women I date don't doubt my masculinity so I'd appreciate it if you did the same.'
She blushed, her smile fading as she looked away, but not before he'd seen that same flicker of vulnerability he'd glimpsed before.
The women he knew, professionally, socially, never showed vulnerability. They were confident: in their talents, in themselves, women who knew what they wanted and weren't afraid to go out and grab it with both hands. This woman was as far from those women as he was from his past yet there was something about her that intrigued him on an intrinsic level.
He'd always trusted his gut instincts and right now, they were telling him to find out what made her tick before he hired her.
She cleared her throat. 'Right, now that we've established you're not in the market for a nineteen-twenties tangerine tea gown, what can I help you with?'
The corners of his mouth twitched as she continued to eye him dubiously, as if she still wasn't convinced he wouldn't slip into a tulle petticoat when she wasn't looking.
'I heard you did birthday parties.' She nodded, the huge curl pinned over her forehead wobbling.
'That's right. We can do make-overs, photos, dress ups, the works. Women love it.'
She paused, her lush red-slicked lips curving into a coy smile.
'Some men too.'
He found himself smiling back, when in fact he wanted to say, Enough with doubting my masculinity already.
'Would that sort of thing transfer across to a hen's night?'
Her eyes lit up. 'Of course. A few hours of fun for the bride-to-be'
'I was thinking more along the lines of a week.' One perfectly plucked eyebrow arched. 'A week?'
He strolled around the shop, picking up a sparkly hair clip here, a spotted scarf there, not seeing the attraction personally but knowing Cari would adore everything about this place.
And what Cari wanted he'd provide. She was the only person who'd stuck by him all these years and if it hadn't been for her when he was growing up
He suppressed a shudder.
'Let me get this straight. You want me to run a week long hen's party?' 'Uh-huh.'
He stopped at the counter, covered in baskets of womanly paraphernalia and brochures, staggered by the amount of stuff draped over every available surface.
'Nothing's impossible,' he said, watching her fiddle with a mannequin, adjusting the wide belt, smoothing the skirt. 'I checked the charges on your website.
I'm willing to double your hourly rate and pay for all transport costs.'
Her eyes widened and, already knowing his offer was too good to refuse, he continued. 'And as CEO of Dazzle, who I'm sure you've heard of, I'm willing to personally recommend you for upcoming events needing something fresh in the way of fashion.'
She stared at him with those big brown eyes, an unwavering stare that made him strangely uncomfortable.
When she didn't jump at his offer immediately, he had to move onto Plan B: cajole.
There his plan hit a snag: he didn't even know her name and knew if he asked now he'd lose serious ground.
'So what do you say?'
She straightened, tossed her blonde ringlets over her shoulders with a flick of her hand and pinned him with a glare that spoke volumes before she opened her mouth.
'Thanks for the offer but my answer's no.'
Lola didn't take kindly to being bossed around. She'd had enough of it growing up from her Miss Australia finalist mother and catwalk model sister.
Wear the boot cut jeans, not the slim fit. Don't wear the A-line skirt; it makes your bum look big.
Use the coral lipstick, not the pink, you look washed out.
Bossiness never failed to put her back up and the moment Mr Tall, Dark and Domineering had strutted into her domain, ignoring house rules, she'd been primed for battle.
Mobile phones didn't belong in Go Retro for a reason. Trying to recreate a vintage ambience was imperative to her business and considering those infernal devices weren't invented back then, she'd made it a house rule to not have them used in the shop that was her pride and joy.
She also hated their constant buzzing and ringing and clattering as people tapped at those miniature keypads as if their lives depended on it.
How anyone could be glued to a phone when surrounded by all this beauty. She trailed a hand over a velvet nineteen-forties vermillion ball gown, savouring the plushness, the timeless elegance, let her fingers skim a floral silk scarf she bet could tell a few stories about the necks it had been knotted around over the years.