The Substitute Bridesmaid by Katie Fforde

Illustration: Jacqueline Bisset, Mandy Murray © Beautiful woman with long flowing hair Illustration: Jacqueline Bisset, Mandy Murray

It was a totally outrageous suggestion from someone she’d only just met – but could it just work?

Ally waved to her friends.

“See you here in an hour. Enjoy your treatments!”

Then she tugged the belt of her bathrobe a bit tighter and headed for the door labelled Relax and Beautify. She was planning to do a lot of the first and the minimum of the second.

She’d come to the hotel spa with her friends because they’d insisted, but facials weren’t really her thing. She was planning to lie on a comfy bed and read.

She opened the door and went in. There was a woman – about her age – in a rather lovely evening-type dress, half done up.

“Oh!” said Ally. “Do you need a hand with that?”

The woman turned towards her.

“Oh yes, please. I don’t think this dress was designed to be put on single-handed.”

After quite a lot of tugging and hitching up, the zip reached the top.

“There!” said Ally.

The woman looked at her reflection in the mirror.

“Do you think it shows I’m pregnant?”

“Either that or you’ve got a beach ball glued to your stomach.” Ally clapped her hand to her mouth. “Oh, I’m sorry. I work with animals. My friends say it makes me tactless sometimes.”

The woman gulped.

“It’s only the truth.”

Ally was treading carefully now

“So, isn’t being pregnant good?”

The woman sighed.

“Not if you’re one of your boss’s bridesmaids and she doesn’t know.”

Ally pulled up the dressing table stool next to the woman.

“I’m Ally. Don’t tell me if you’d rather not, but why would your boss mind you being pregnant?”

“I’m Suzanne. And when you put it like that it sounds mad! But my boss is very controlling and she doesn’t know.”

“Why are you being her bridesmaid if you don’t know her well enough to tell her about the baby?”

Suzanne put her head down on the dressing table and groaned.

“She wanted all her team – not that she treats us like a team – to be her wedding attendants.”

“And she hasn’t noticed your bump?”

“She’s in the States most of the time. Last time she was over I wasn’t really showing. All the wedding stuff has been arranged by email.” She paused. “It’s all been paid for, the dress, the shoes, the pashmina, the hair ornament. Look!”

Suzanne burrowed in a carrier at her feet. She took out something like a comet – a star with a tail – all in crystals and diamanté.

“The earrings match.”

“Wow,” said Ally. ‘I’m really glad I don’t have to get that to stay in my hair!”

Suzanne swivelled round and looked at Ally properly for the first time.

“I could get it to stay in for you. I’m quite good at hair and make-up.”

“Well, call round my house at six on Monday morning and see what you can do,” Ally joked. “I’m sure the dogs at the rescue centre will love it!”

“Seriously, I’m just a shower, a scrunchy and a sweatshirt kind of girl. Hey –” Ally noticed a kettle and a huge selection of herbal tea bags. “Would you like a cup of something?”

“No.” The girl was suddenly serious. “What I’d like is for you to take my place at the wedding. It’s in the hotel – today.”

Ally giggled…

“I like your style! You can’t fit in the dress, so send in the understudy. I quite fancy a lime and honey tea myself. Sure I can’t tempt you?”

“No!” said Suzanne urgently. “I’m serious! You wear the dress and be the bridesmaid. It’s the perfect solution! Unless of course you’re doing something else right now…”

Ally switched on the kettle.

“No, just relaxing – but you can’t be serious. People – your Bridezilla boss – would notice.”

“No, she wouldn’t! She’ll only be looking at herself. As long as she’s got her six bridesmaids and her fiancé has his six groomsmen – so American! – she won’t notice anyone’s individual face. Anyway, we look quite alike.”

“No, we don’t! You’re really pretty!”

“So are you! Please let me put a bit of make-up on you. We’ve got everything we need here.” She pulled open a pair of cupboard doors revealing an entire upmarket cosmetics range.

Holding her mug, Ally came over to investigate.

“I can’t believe they let us try all this make-up.”

“They’ll make sales, trust me,” said Suzanne. “Now, sit down. Let me play.”

Ally took a sip of her drink and then perched herself on a stool and closed her eyes. “OK, you can play, but don’t go too mad.”

“There!” said Suzanne. “Open your eyes. You look gorgeous.”

Ally obeyed, expecting to see herself looking like she usually did when she put her own make-up on, which wasn’t great.

“Oh. That actually is quite nice!”

“You look wonderful. I’ll do your hair in a minute. Just slip on the dress.”

Because she felt different now she had make-up on, Ally was quite curious to see what she’d look like in a beautiful satin evening gown.

Five minutes later she was in the dress…

“I just don’t look like me! I love it!”

“Sit back down. Let me do your hair. They’ve got tongs here.”

“This is surprisingly fun,” said Ally. “I usually rely on just being clean. And that’s mostly because I come back from work smelling of disinfectant and have to wash it off.”

“So what is it you do, exactly?”

While Ally chatted about the animal sanctuary, the dogs she walked and trained and loved, the kittens she fed two-hourly – sometimes taking them home so she could feed them through the night – Suzanne tonged and combed and pinned.

“There! That ornament looks far nicer on you than I could make it look on me! And the earrings are just the finishing touch.” Suzanne was triumphant.

Ally stared at herself without speaking for some moments.

“I do look rather good. Can you take a picture for me on my phone? I’d love to show my mum. And my mates.”

“I’ve got a much better idea! What about a set of photos by the wedding photographer. He is the best! I’m just going to call my friends – they’re bridesmaids too.”

It was all moving so fast

Ally was torn. She realised what Suzanne was planning, and knew that if she took off the make-up and the dress she wouldn’t be made to take part in Suzanne’s mad plan. But she couldn’t quite bring herself to. She looked so different! So – well – elegant and pretty.

Suzanne’s reinforcements arrived, both wearing the same style of dress as Ally and looking wonderfully well-groomed.

“So, Suzanne, you really can’t get into the dress?” asked one, who was called Annabel.

“I can get into it… but as my new best friend Ally here said, it looks as if I have a beach ball welded to my stomach.”

“Oh,” said Lily, the colleague who was slightly older and possibly more senior. “Then we’ll have to resort to plan B.” She turned to Ally. “Are you willing to give it a try? I know, it must seem completely crazy to anyone who doesn’t work for our boss, but for her to have a pregnant bridesmaid would ruin her look and Suzanne would find it hard to get a decent job after her maternity leave. And we want her with us!”

“Please…” All three were looking at her with pleading expressions.

“I’ll never get away with it,” said Ally, weakening.

“Stand up, Suzy, let’s see you next to Ally.” Lily, along with Annabel, inspected the two women.

“Really, you do look very alike. Same height, same colouring, you’d look great!” exclaimed Annabel. “And the perfect sub for Mrs Bun-in-the-Oven here.”

“I’d be terrified!” protested Ally. “I don’t do people, much. I’m an animal person.”

“We’ll look after you,” said Lily.

“And after the photos and the formalities, I’ll come and take over,” said Suzanne. “You won’t have to sit on the bridesmaids’ table. I’ll say something happened to my dress. You’ll get some wonderful photos – I’ll make sure you get some single shots, and you can keep the dress. You’ll be back before your friends miss you.”

“I can’t do it! It’s my hands, they’re in cold water all the time and they’re like sandpaper.” Ally felt a rush of disappointment. She held them out for inspection, her chance of playing Cinderella about to be snatched away.

“No problem!” said Annabel triumphantly. “We wear long gloves! Now we’d better hurry. We’re due to line up in about ten minutes to make our way to the hotel ballroom for the ceremony. Send your friends a text and let’s get going. You’ll be back before you know it.”

Fifteen minutes later Ally was lining up, Annabel on one side and Lily on the other. They walked in procession, so they paired up with the groomsmen. It had all happened so fast, she could barely take it in.

Ally felt too self-conscious to even look at the man standing next to her.

“Hi,” said a friendly male voice. “So you’re my partner?”

Ally felt brave enough to glance up

“Yes, but not for long. You see, I’m an understudy,” she blurted out. “I’m doing the ceremony and the photos and then Suzanne, who’s pregnant, will come back for the meal…” She tailed off. “It’s, er, complicated.”

She recognised him – but couldn’t decide if this was a good thing.

“Hey!” he was saying. “I know you, don’t I! What’s your name?”

Ally decided it was too embarrassing to explain. He was the new young vet at the practice the animal shelter always used. She’d fancied him the moment she saw him. She decided to give him a clue.

“You may just know me by sight.”

Before he could speculate further, a woman in a suit addressed the group.

“Hi, guys, you all look amazing! Now Corinna is running a bit late – bride’s prerogative – so you all stay here until I call you. You’ll go to the ceremony room in your pairs, then the men file off to the groom’s side and the women follow Corinna up the aisle. When she reaches the top you go off to the side so the bridal couple are flanked by their attendants. I’ll just check you look right.”

Ally stiffened with nerves, then realised this woman was probably a wedding planner and so wouldn’t know anyone.

“Fabulous! Now wait here.”

The planner stalked off, her high heels stabbing importantly into the marble tiles.

“So,” said the vet. “Have I seen you down at the Waggon and Horses?”

Ally shook her head, eyes twinkling.

“A friend of Diana’s?”

“Nope. But here’s another clue. I’d have recognised you quicker if you’d been wearing scrubs and a face mask.”

“A client! You’re a client!”

Twenty minutes, a wedding ceremony and a nerve-wracking procession occurred before the next lot of questions.

“Are you a fan of big dogs? Own an Afghan hound?”

This made Ally giggle. She’d taken a mixed-up Lurcher called Seamus to see him. Far from an aristocratic Afghan.

The photographs took nearly an hour, and those were just the ones that included the bridesmaids. There were several single shots that Ally decided she’d give to her female relatives if they came out well. They had all despaired of the lack of glamour in her job.

The young vet came up to her just as Suzanne had arrived, looking very elegant and not very pregnant, to take over from Ally.

“I’ve got it! You brought in that poor old Lurcher with only three legs. You’re from the animal sanctuary.”

Ally smiled.

“So can I take you for a drink sometime? After the wedding?”

“I won’t look like I do now, you know. Suzanne here had to work hard to smarten me up.”

He shook his head. “You’re pretty even in the sanctuary purple sweatshirt. Can I have your number?”

Back in her own clothes, Ally met her friends in the Relax and Beautify room. They were thrilled at her makeover.

“Hey! Look at you! What have you been up to since we left you here in your bathrobe?”

“Oh, you know, being a bridesmaid, picking up a man, nothing exciting…”

Author Katie Fforde

Author Katie Fforde Pic: David O’Driscoll

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Karen Byrom

My coffee mug says "professional bookworm" which sums me up really! As commissioning fiction editor on the magazine, I love sharing my reading experience of the latest books, debut authors and more with you all, and would like to hear from you about your favourite books and authors! Email me