Home > Still Me (Me Before You #3)(13)

Still Me (Me Before You #3)(13)
Author: Jojo Moyes

‘I wondered if you were free this evening.’

‘Free?’

‘To come to an event. For charity.’

‘Uh … sure.’ I had known from the start that the hours would not be regular. And at least it meant I wasn’t likely to bump into Ilaria. I would download a movie onto one of the iPads and watch it in the car.

‘There. What do you think, darling?’ Agnes looked as if she had been crying. ‘She can sit next to me?’

‘I’ll sort it out.’

She took a deep, shaky breath. ‘Okay, then. I suppose so.’

‘Sit next to …’

‘Good. Good!’ Mr Gopnik checked his phone. ‘Right. I really have to go. I’ll see you in the main ballroom. Seven thirty. If I can get through this conference call any sooner I’ll let you know.’ He stepped forward and took her face in his hands, kissing her. ‘You’re okay?’

‘I’m okay.’

‘I love you. Very much.’ Another kiss, and he was gone.

Agnes took another deep breath. She put her hands on her knees, then looked up at me. ‘You have a yellow ballgown?’

I stared at her. ‘Um. Nope. Bit short on ballgowns, actually.’

She ran her gaze up and down me, as if trying to work out whether I could fit into anything she owned. I think we both knew the answer to that one. Then she straightened. ‘Call Garry. We need to get to Saks.’

Half an hour later I was standing in a changing room while two shop assistants pushed my bosoms into a strapless dress the colour of unsalted butter. The last time I had been handled this intimately, I quipped, I had discussed getting engaged immediately afterwards. Nobody laughed.

Agnes frowned. ‘Too bridal. And it makes her look thick around the waist.’

‘That’s because I am thick around the waist.’

‘We do some very good corrective panties, Mrs Gopnik.’

‘Oh, I’m not sure I –’

‘Do you have anything more fifties-style?’ said Agnes, flicking through her phone. ‘Because this will pull in her waist and get around the height issue. We don’t have time to take anything up.’

‘When is your event, ma’am?’

‘We have to be there seven thirty.’

‘We can alter a dress for you in time, Mrs Gopnik. I’ll get Terri to deliver it over to you by six.’

‘Then let’s try the sunflower yellow one there … and that one with the sequins.’

If I’d known that that afternoon would be the one time in my life I would be trying on three-thousand-dollar dresses, I might have made sure I wasn’t wearing comedy knickers with a sausage dog on them and a bra that was held together with a safety pin. I wondered how many times in one week you could end up exposing your breasts to perfect strangers. I wondered if they had ever seen a body like mine before, with actual fatty bits. The shop assistants were far too polite to comment on it, beyond repeatedly offering ‘corrective’ underwear, but simply brought in dress after dress, wrestling me in and out, like someone wrangling livestock, until Agnes, sitting on an upholstered chair, announced, ‘Yes! This is the one. What you think, Louisa? It is even perfect length for you with that tulle underskirt.’

I stared at my reflection. I wasn’t sure who was staring back at me. My waist was nipped in by an inbuilt corset, my bosom hoisted upwards into a perfect embonpoint. The colour made my skin glow and the long skirt made me a foot taller and entirely unlike myself. The fact that I couldn’t breathe was irrelevant.

‘We will put your hair up and some earrings. Perfect.’

‘And this dress is twenty per cent off,’ said one of the shop assistants. ‘We don’t sell much yellow after the Strager event each year …’

I almost deflated with relief. And then I gazed at the label. The sale price was $2575. A month’s wages. I think Agnes must have seen my bleached face, for she waved at one of the women. ‘Louisa, you get changed. Do you have any shoes that will go? We can run to the shoe department?’

‘I have shoes. Lots of shoes.’ I had some gold satin-heeled dancing pumps, which would look fine. I did not want this bill going any higher.

I went back into the changing cubicle and climbed out of the dress carefully, feeling the weight of it fall expensively around me, and as I got dressed, I listened to Agnes and the assistants talking. Agnes summoned a bag and some earrings, gave them a cursory glance and was apparently satisfied. ‘Charge it to my account.’

‘Certainly, Mrs Gopnik.’

I met her at the cash desk. As we walked away, me clutching the bags, I said quietly, ‘So do you want me to be extra careful?’

She looked at me blankly.

‘With the dress.’

Still she looked blank.

I lowered my voice. ‘At home we tuck the label in, then you can take it back the next day. You know, as long as there are no accidental wine stains and it doesn’t stink too much of cigarettes. Maybe give it a quick squirt of Febreze.’

‘Take it back?’

‘To the shop.’

‘Why we would do this?’ she said, as we climbed back into the waiting car and Garry put the bags into the boot. ‘Don’t look so anxious, Louisa. You think I don’t know how you feel? I have nothing when I come here. Me and my friends, we even shared our clothes. But you have to wear good dress when you sit next to me this evening. You can’t wear your uniform. This evening you are not staff. And I am happy to pay for this.’

‘Okay.’

‘You understand. Yes? Tonight you have to not be staff. It’s very important.’

I thought of the enormous carrier bag in the boot behind me as the car navigated its way slowly through the Manhattan traffic, a little dumbstruck at the direction this day was taking.

‘Leonard says you looked after a man who died.’

‘I did. His name was Will.’

‘He says you have – discretion.’

‘I try.’

‘And also that you don’t know anyone here.’

‘Just Nathan.’

She thought about this. ‘Nathan. I think he is a good man.’

‘He really is.’

She studied her nails. ‘You speak Polish?’

‘No.’ I added quickly: ‘But maybe I could learn, if you –’

‘You know what is difficult for me, Louisa?’

I shook my head.

‘I don’t know who I …’ She hesitated, then apparently changed her mind about what she was going to say. ‘I need you to be my friend tonight. Okay? Leonard … he will have to do his work thing. Always talking, talking with the men. But you will stay with me, yes? Right by me.’

‘Whatever you want.’

‘And if anybody ask, you are my old friend. From when I lived in England. We – we knew each other from school. Not my assistant, okay?’

‘Got it. From school.’

That seemed to satisfy her. She nodded, and settled in her seat. She said nothing else the whole way back to the apartment.

The New York Palace Hotel, which held the Strager Foundation Gala, was so grand it was almost comical: a fairytale fortress, with a courtyard and arched windows, it was dotted with liveried footmen in daffodil silk knickerbockers. It was as if they had looked at every grand old hotel in Europe, taken notes about ornate cornicing, marble lobbies and fiddly bits of gilt and decided to add it all together, sprinkle some Disney fairy dust on it and ramp it up to camp levels all of its own. I half expected to see a pumpkin coach and the odd glass slipper on the red stair carpet. As we pulled up, I gazed into the glowing interior, the twinkling lights and sea of yellow dresses, and almost wanted to laugh, but Agnes was so tense I didn’t dare. Plus my bodice was so tight I would probably have burst my seams.

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