Home > Still Me (Me Before You #3)(14)

Still Me (Me Before You #3)(14)
Author: Jojo Moyes

Garry dropped us outside the main entrance, levering the car into a turning area thick with huge black limousines. We walked in past a crowd of onlookers on the sidewalk. A man took our coats, and for the first time Agnes’s dress was fully visible.

She looked astonishing. Hers was not a conventional ballgown like mine, or like any of the other women’s, but neon yellow, structured, a floor-length tube with one sculpted shoulder motif that rose up to her head. Her hair was scraped back unforgivingly, tight and sleek, and two enormous gold and yellow-diamond earrings hung from her ears. It should have looked extraordinary. But here, I realized with a faint drop to my stomach, it was somehow too much – out of place in the old-world grandeur of the hotel.

As she stood there, nearby heads swivelled, eyebrows lifting as the matrons in their yellow silk wraps and boned corsets viewed her from the corners of carefully made-up eyes.

Agnes appeared oblivious. She glanced around distractedly, trying to locate her husband. She wouldn’t relax until she had hold of his arm. Sometimes I watched them together and saw an almost palpable sense of relief come over her when she felt him beside her.

‘Your dress is amazing,’ I said.

She looked down at me as if she had just remembered I was there. A flashbulb went off and I saw that photographers were moving among us. I stepped away to give Agnes space, but the man motioned towards me. ‘You too, ma’am. That’s it. And smile.’ She smiled, her gaze flickering towards me as if reassuring herself I was still nearby.

And then Mr Gopnik appeared. He walked over a little stiffly – Nathan had said he was having a bad week – and kissed his wife’s cheek. I heard him murmur something into her ear and she smiled, a sincere, unguarded smile. Their hands briefly clasped, and in that moment I noted that two people could fit all the stereotypes and yet there was something about them that was completely genuine, a delight in each other’s presence. It made me feel suddenly wistful for Sam. But then I couldn’t imagine him somewhere like this, trussed up in a dinner jacket and bow tie. He would, I thought absently, have hated it.

‘Name, please?’ The photographer appeared at my shoulder.

Perhaps it was thinking of Sam that made me do it. ‘Um. Louisa Clark-Fielding,’ I said, in my most strangulated upper-class accent. ‘From England.’

‘Mr Gopnik! Over here, Mr Gopnik!’ I backed into the crowd as the photographers took pictures of them together, his hand resting lightly on his wife’s back, her shoulders straight and chin up as if she could command the gathering. And then I saw him scan the room for me, his eyes meeting mine across the lobby.

He walked Agnes over. ‘Darling, I have to talk to some people. Will you two be all right going in on your own?’

‘Of course, Mr Gopnik,’ I said, as if I did this kind of thing every day.

‘Will you be back soon?’ Agnes still had hold of his hand.

‘I have to talk to Wainwright and Miller. I promised I’d give them ten minutes to go over this bond deal.’

Agnes nodded, but her face betrayed her reluctance to let him go. As she walked through the lobby Mr Gopnik leant in to me. ‘Don’t let her drink too much. She’s nervous.’

‘Yes, Mr Gopnik.’

He nodded, glanced around him as if deep in thought. Then he turned back to me and smiled. ‘You look very nice.’ And then he was gone.

The ballroom was jammed, a sea of yellow and black. I wore the yellow and black beaded bracelet Will’s daughter Lily had given me before I’d left England – and thought privately how much I would have loved to wear my bumblebee tights too. These women didn’t look like they’d had fun with their wardrobes their entire lives.

The first thing that struck me was how thin most of them were, hoicked into tiny dresses, clavicles poking out like safety rails. Women of a certain age in Stortfold tended to spread gently outwards, cloaking their extra inches in cardigans or long jumpers (‘Does it cover my bum?’) and paying lip service to looking good in the form of the occasional new mascara or a six-weekly haircut. In my hometown it was as if to pay too much attention to yourself was somehow suspect, or suggested unhealthy self-interest.

But the women in this ballroom looked as if they made their appearance a full-time job. There was no hair not perfectly coiffed into shape, no upper arm that was not toned into submission by some rigorous daily workout. Even the women of uncertain years (it was hard to tell, given the amount of Botox and fillers) looked as if they’d never heard of a bingo wing, let alone flapped one. I thought of Agnes, her personal trainer, her dermatologist, her hairdressing and manicurist appointments and thought, This is her job now. She has to do all that maintenance so she can turn up here and hold her own in this crowd.

Agnes moved slowly among them, her head high, smiling at her husband’s friends, who came over to greet her and share a few words while I hovered uncomfortably in the background. The friends were always men. It was only men who smiled at her. The women, while not rude enough to walk away, tended to turn their faces discreetly, as if suddenly distracted by something in the distance, so that they didn’t have to engage with her. Several times as we continued through the crowd, me walking behind her, I saw a wife’s expression tighten, as if Agnes’s presence was some kind of transgression.

‘Good evening,’ said a voice at my ear.

I looked up and stumbled backwards. Will Traynor stood beside me.

5

Afterwards I was glad that the room was so crowded because when I stumbled sideways into the man next to me he instinctively reached out a hand and, in an instant, several dinner-suited arms were righting me, a sea of faces, smiling, concerned. As I thanked them, apologizing, I saw my mistake. No, not Will – his hair was the same cut and colour, his skin that same caramel hue. But I must have gasped aloud because the man who was not Will said, ‘I’m sorry, did I startle you?’

‘I – no. No.’ I put my hand to my cheek, my eyes locked on his. ‘You – you just look like someone I know. Knew.’ I felt my face flush, the kind of stain that starts at your chest and floods its way up to your hairline.

‘You okay?’

‘Oh, gosh. Fine. I’m fine.’ I felt stupid now. My face glowed with it.

‘You’re English.’

‘You’re not.’

‘Not even a New Yorker. Bostonian. Joshua William Ryan the Third.’ He held out his hand.

‘You even have his name.’

‘I’m sorry?’

I took his hand. Close up, he was quite different from Will. His eyes were dark brown, his brow lower. But the similarities had left me completely unbalanced. I tore my gaze away from him, conscious that I was still hanging onto his fingers. ‘I’m sorry. I’m a little …’

‘Let me get you a drink.’

‘I can’t. I’m meant to be with my – my friend over there.’

He looked at Agnes. ‘Then I’ll get you both a drink. It’ll be – uh – easy to find you.’ He grinned and touched my elbow. I tried not to stare at him as he walked off.

As I approached Agnes, the man who had been talking to her was hauled away by his wife. Agnes lifted a hand as if she were about to say something in response to him and found herself talking to a broad expanse of dinner-jacketed back. She turned, her face rigid.

‘Sorry. Got stuck in the crowds.’

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