“Do I have a choice?” Zara had asked, with only the faintest touch of asperity, because the way Ariella had said dependable was anything but complimentary, unlike the way Grams had said it back when. “Are you planning to step up and be dependable at some point?”
Ariella had met Zara’s gaze in the mirror, a bright red lipstick in one languid hand. She’d blinked as if amazed by the question.
“Why would I?” she’d asked after a moment, as light and breezy and dismissive as ever, though her expression had bordered on scornful. “You’re so much better at it.”
That had obviously been a statement of intent, Zara thought now, as she moved closer by the second to the man at the end of the aisle. Who wasn’t waiting for her. Who, given a choice, wouldn’t be there at all.
Zara was glad she was wearing the irksome, heavy veil that hid her away from view so that none of the assembled onlookers could see how foolish her imagination was, which would no doubt be written all over her face. The curse of a natural redhead, she thought balefully. Hair that she only wished was a mysterious shade of glamorous auburn instead of what it really was. Red. And the ridiculously sensitive skin to go along with it.
But then she stopped thinking about her skin and the things that might or might not be splashed across it in all those telling pinks and reds she couldn’t control, because they reached the altar at last.
Amos boomed out his part of the archaic ceremony, announcing to all that he gave away this woman with perhaps an insulting amount of paternal eagerness. Then she was summarily handed over to Chase Whitaker, who had turned to face her but managed to convey the impression that he was still facing in the other direction. As if he was deeply bored. Or so mentally and emotionally removed from this absurd little exercise that he thought he actually was somewhere else entirely.
And Zara remained veiled, as if she was participating in an actual medieval wedding, because—as her father had reminded her no less than seventy-five times in the church lobby already—Chase needed to be legally bound to the family before this little bait and switch was discovered.
“How charming,” Zara had said drily. “A fairy tale of a wedding, indeed.”
Amos had eyed her with that flat, ugly look of his that she went to great lengths to avoid under normal circumstances. Not that waking up to find oneself in the middle of a farcical comedy that involved playing Switch the Arranged Bride with her absentee sister’s unknowing and unwilling fiancé constituted anything like normal.
“You can save the smart remarks for your new husband, assuming you manage to pull this off,” Amos had said coldly. As was his way, especially when talking to the daughter he’d called a waste of Elliott genes when she’d been a particularly ungainly and unattractive thirteen-year-old. “I’m sure he’ll be more receptive to them than I am.”
His expression had suggested he doubted that, and Zara had decided that one smart remark was more than enough. She’d busied herself with practicing her polite, “just married to a complete stranger” smile and pretending she was perfectly fine with the fact Ariella’s dress didn’t fit her at all.
Because what girl didn’t dream of waddling up the aisle in a dress that had been cut down the back to allow her breasts to fit in it, then held together with a hastily sewn-up strip of lace she was afraid her stepmother had ripped off the bottom of the church’s curtains?
Her soon-to-be husband took her hands now, his own large and warm and remarkably strong as they curled around hers. It made her feel oddly light-headed. Zara frowned at the perky boutonniere he wore in his lapel and tried not to think too much about the fact that her father clearly believed that if Chase got wind of the fact that it was Zara he was marrying, he’d run for the hills.
The arranged marriage part was no impediment, was the implication. Just the fact that it was to the less lovely, less fawned over, much less desirable Elliott sister.
It wasn’t until she heard a strange sound that Zara realized she was grinding her teeth. She stopped before her father—glowering at her from the first pew—heard it and did something else to ensure this marriage happened according to his plans. Zara really didn’t want to think about what that something else might entail. Switching one daughter for the next should really be at the outer limits of deceitful behavior, but this was Amos Elliott. He had no outer limits.
The priest droned on about fidelity and love, which verged on insulting under the circumstances. Zara lifted her frown to Chase Whitaker’s famously beautiful profile, so masculine and attractive that it had graced any number of magazine covers in its time, and reminded herself that while this situation might be extreme, it wasn’t anything new. Zara had always been the mousy sister, the dutiful sister. The sister who preferred books to parties and her grandmother’s company to the carousing of a hundred idiotic peers. The quiet sister whose academic aspirations were always swept aside or outright ignored so that Ariella’s various scandals and kaleidoscopic needs could be focused on instead. She’d always been the sister who could be relied upon to do all the unpleasant and responsible and often deadly boring things, so that Ariella could carry on with her “modeling” and her “acting” and whatever else it was she pretended to do that kept her flitting about the globe from one hot spot to the next, answerable to no one and spending their father’s money as she pleased.