I can’t do this. I don’t know what in God’s name made me think I could. Sure, Vanessa said “black-tie affair” but I’ve been to those. Pull the nicest dress from my closet—maybe even splurge on a new one—and I’m all set. Black-tie just means the guys wear tuxes and the women wear cocktail dresses, and everyone drinks bubbly and has fun playing fancy dress-up.
This isn’t playing. This is what those events aspired to. Saying I’d been to a black-tie gala is like saying I’ve been to high tea because I’d had tea parties as a kid.
Vanessa called us a car for the trip to the gala. Not a taxi. A hired car, which isn’t a limo, because as I’m quickly realizing, that would be gauche. That’s the sort of thing people like me do for prom and bachelorette parties, and then joke about how posh we are. The truly posh wouldn’t be caught dead in a stretch limo. Even fancy SUVs are for security staff. We arrive in what could be the twin of Connolly’s car, driven by a guy in a suit who very unobtrusively opens our doors.
“Should I tip him?” I whisper to Vanessa.
Her look answers, and my cheeks heat.
“It’s included in the car hire,” she murmurs. “But thank you for thinking of it.”
The man is gone before I have time to double-check the backseat for my phone—which I’m apparently clutching in one hand. I slide it into the tiny bag Vanessa had produced from her suitcase. The suitcase that miraculously appeared at the hotel room where we’d gotten ready.
After renting my dress, Vanessa had insisted on alterations, and we’d retreated to a hotel a quarter-mile away, where her suitcase waited, along with someone to do our hair and makeup. My dress had arrived by courier.
The whole experience had indeed been very fairy godmother. I’d loved it. Reveled in the pampering and primping. Right up until now, as we arrive at the event.
I’m not sure what I expected. It’d be small, obviously. Vanessa expected only a half-dozen invitees plus guests and security. Then we arrive, and it’s being held at the Cabot Museum of Greco-Roman Antiquities.
There’d been a time, as a child, when I’d dreamed of being a museum curator. When I dreamed of working here. This is the place that inspired my love of antiques and history.
The Cabot Museum of Greco-Roman Antiquities.
Eloise Hill-Cabot’s cursed Greco-Roman necklace.
I hadn’t made the connection, and when I realize where we’re going, I feel stupid. Then I see the line of cars and the steady stream of black-tie guests.
“I thought it was a small gathering,” I say as we stand on the sidewalk, watching the parade of designer finery.
“They’ve obviously combined it with another event. Likely a fundraiser. We’ll have exclusive access to a smaller gathering inside.”
Exclusive access. To the inner circle. At a gala where I don’t belong in the outer circle.
Earlier I’d mused that I’d think of my dress as a uniform, as if I’d been hired to serve champagne. I should have infiltrated as serving staff. I’d be at home there, making a few extra bucks, serving champagne and then retreating to the wings with my fellow staff, where we’d alternate between swooning over a gorgeous dress, bitching about demanding guests and snarking about how many homeless people could dine on the wasted food.
Connolly’s car pulls up. Or it looks like his, but so do a dozen others. Then the driver’s door opens, and I catch a flash of red-gold hair and I grin, feeling like the girl sitting alone at a table when her date arrives.
Then he steps out of the car and hands his keys to the valet, and my despair rushes back ten-fold.
Vanessa joked about playing fairy godmother. This, then, is my true Cinderella moment. Yes, yes, Connolly is my business partner, and I can’t entertain thoughts beyond that. Yet in this scenario, he plays the role of Prince Charming, the guy escorting me to the ball, and I would be a bald-faced liar if I said I hadn’t twirled in front of the mirror and envisioned his reaction to my transformation.
The story of Cinderella is a fantasy of privilege. All it takes is a little fairy dust—or a proper stylist and unlimited funds—to transform the drudge into a princess. What the story leaves out is how Cinderella would have felt walking into that ball. Or it tells us she felt incredible, floating on air. That’s a lie. This is how she really felt, seeing her prince. Struck by the horrible realization that all the stylists in the world can’t transform her into someone who fits into his universe.
Connolly belongs in this scene. When he climbs from the car, when he speaks to the valet, when he strides toward the sidewalk, it is with the same nonchalance I would feel hopping out of a taxi at a friend’s BBQ. I’m freaking out at the thought of going through those doors, and to him, it’s just another party.
If he attracts any attention, it’s only admiring glances from women . . . and a few guys. Vanessa mentioned Connolly’s fashion sense, and now that she’s called my attention to it, I feel blind for missing it. The guy is wearing a rented tux. It should sag here, bunch there, something about it seeming not quite right, even to my untrained eye. This is why I didn’t realize he dresses well—because he dresses flawlessly. Even in a rented tux, I don’t see the slightest imperfection.
Vanessa talked about style and fit and fabric, but all I know is he looks amazing. He strides past guys who looked fine a moment ago, and I suddenly see the imperfections in their attire—pants a little long, shoes not quite the right shade of black, coat a little tight in the shoulders, royal blue bowtie that doesn’t flatter someone’s skin tone.
They look stylish and at ease. Connolly somehow looks more stylish, more at ease.
Before I can finish processing that, he’s in front of us.
“Sorry to have kept you both waiting,” he says. “I mistimed traffic.”
That’s it. Nothing about my dress. Nothing about how I look.
I chide myself. This isn’t a date. Also no split-second Hollywood makeover reveal. If he thought I looked nice, he assimilated that a hundred feet away. Still, it’s just one more lead weight tossed onto my mood.
“You look nice,” I say.
He glances down, as if he’s forgotten what he’s wearing. “Ah. Yes. Well, not many choices when it comes to tuxes. Makes things easy.” A pause. A long pause. Then, “Oh, and, of course, you look, well, lovely. That’s a very, er, lovely dress. Now, shall we—”
“Is there a back-up plan?” I blurt. “Maybe I can sneak in and steal a server’s outfit. See the necklace that way.”
Connolly frowns at me.
“I just . . .” I begin. “I think this will work better if you two are guests, and I join the staff.”
Connolly studies me and then turns to Vanessa. “May we have a moment?”
“Of course,” she says.
Connolly puts his fingertips against my back and leads me to the lawn, where we can tuck into a shadow.
“You do look lovely,” he says. “I’m sorry if I bungled that.”
“No, it’s not—”
“You told me I looked nice, and my awkward response seemed forced and insincere. I realized I should have complimented you first, and so I stumbled over a response.”
“Aiden, no. This isn’t a date. You aren’t obligated to say anything about how I look. I just . . . I don’t fit here. That’s obvious.”
His frown is genuine, which helps lift my spirits. Before he can speak, I say, “I’m not fishing for compliments. It isn’t the dress or the shoes or my hairdo or anything. Vanessa looked after all that. What she can’t fix, though, is the fact that I’m a million miles out of my depth here. I’m going to screw it up. Use the wrong fork or whatever.”
“It’s finger food. There won’t be forks.”
“Then I’ll be the dolt who asks for one. I just . . .” I exhale and meet his gaze. “I don’t belong here, Aiden. I know it. You know it. Everyone here is going to know it.”
I expect a quick blanket denial, which will only make this conversation more awkward. Instead he considers and then says, “When we were in Unstable, how did I seem?”
“Relaxed? At ease? Before we got the custard, that is.”
“Unstable isn’t your kind of place. I was mostly thinking about how you must see it, our little provincial town. Terribly quaint. Which is code for backwards and boring.”
“I wasn’t thinking that at all. However, I wasn’t relaxed either, because all I could think was that I didn’t fit in. I was glad we could leave my car behind the library. Where it’s just another vehicle in Boston, it seemed showy and ostentatious in Unstable. I felt the same. As if I’d walked into a country fair wearing a bespoke suit. Yet even if I’d been wearing jeans, I think I’d have felt as if everyone knew I didn’t belong.”
He glances at the museum. “That’s how you feel here. Except no one’s going to notice if you eat the canapés wrong or even ask for a fork. They’re too busy with their own concerns. Looking for networking opportunities. Flirting with someone else’s wife. Wondering when they can get out of their too-tight shoes. If they notice you at all, it will be as an attractive young woman they might like to get to know better.”
I must make a face, because his eyes warm.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “I will stay close enough to protect you. Unless you’d rather I didn’t.”
“Then . . .” He offers his arm. “May I?”
I hesitate, and then smile, take his arm, and we head back to Vanessa.
That isn’t the end of the discussion. It could be—I’ve had my mini-meltdown and I won’t trouble Connolly with my fears. Yet while he doesn’t dwell on it, he doesn’t presume my chin-up forward motion means I’m feeling fine and confident. He whispers and murmurs asides as we return to Vanessa and as the three of us go in. Words of advice and encouragement.
Just keep looking forward.
Watch the step here.
Vanessa will check us in—we’ll just talk over here.
Pretend it’s just the two of us if that helps.
You really do look lovely. Maroon suits you.
We’ll do a few rounds of the main party before heading to ours.
If you need anything, just let me know.
None of it feels patronizing, and I’ve come to realize that when I feel patronized by him, that’s not his intention. Oh, it’s certainly not always me being overly sensitive. But the more I’m with him, the less of that I get, as he relaxes.
What seemed condescending had been mostly awkwardness. Now, as he guides me through those first few minutes, I see only kindness and consideration, two of the last things I’d have expected from the guy who walked into my showroom yesterday morning.
People say I’m kind, but in my case, it comes easily and naturally. I like people, and I treat everyone the way I want to be treated. That’s how I was raised. I’m naturally outgoing and open. Connolly is neither. And he definitely wasn’t raised to treat others with respect. Sure, if they “outrank” him, then they get respect because he wants something from them. I suspect he’d been raised to treat those “under” him much differently. He doesn’t, though. There is an innate kindness there that his upbringing couldn’t quite stamp out. It’s a shy kindness, slipping out only when he’s comfortable and confident that it won’t be mistaken for weakness.
As he warned, we don’t head straight into the inner party. Following Vanessa’s lead, we tour the main room. With that I discover the piece of advice Connolly left out. That key piece that makes all the difference. I don’t need to worry about what people will think, because as long as I’m with Vanessa, they won’t notice me.
My ego is somewhat cushioned by the fact that they don’t notice Connolly either. Vanessa walks through a room, and she draws every eye. Connolly and I get to relax and enjoy the tranquil quiet of the shadow she casts.
It’s like something out of a movie, really, with well-bred ladies and gentlemen whispering in an undulating wave of Who is she? as we pass. The guesses follow. Hollywood mostly, possibly modeling, but the money is on ‘actor.’ These people might not have seen a movie in decades, but clearly Vanessa is some major Hollywood star. As soon as they decide that, they try picking apart her styling. The exact fate I feared falls onto Vanessa instead, as they decide she isn’t “one of them.” Beautiful, to be sure. Unearthly beautiful. But that which makes her so striking also proves she doesn’t belong here. Her face is her passport into this party, rather than her breeding or brains.
The problem, of course, is that when they try to find fault, they can’t, and I have to hold back a snicker at those whispers. Half-started insults they can’t finish. That dress is . . . Her shoes aren’t quite . . . She’s very clearly . . .
We hear it all on that walk through the party. And Vanessa’s expression never changes. She drinks in the party, gaze flitting here and there. More than once it lands on a handsome man. Yet it never lingers. She admires and moves on. As for the whispers, they seem not to reach her ears, as if they fall into a frequency she can no longer hear.
We pause in a quiet spot. One snarky whisper reaches us, some woman saying she should ask for the name of Vanessa’s plastic surgeon. When her companion replies that Vanessa probably didn’t pay in cash, I start to wheel, just to let her know we heard, but Vanessa catches my arm.
A man on our other side sees Vanessa holding my arm and leans in to whisper something to another man. They both snicker like teenage boys.
“The well-bred aren’t that well-bred, are they,” I mutter. “It’s like a school dance.”
“Shall we give them something to talk about?”
She makes a move to tug me closer, and I acquiesce with a smile. Then she glances at Connolly.
“Come over here, Aiden, and we’ll really get tongues wagging.”
He frowns, pulling his attention back from wherever it had wandered.
She puts out her arm, motioning for him to take it. “We’re trying to make people talk. Play along. It’s fun.”
He realizes what she means, and his cheeks redden.
“Perfect,” she says. “Nothing says ‘naughty conversation’ like a blushing man.” She leans toward him. “Pretend I’m saying something truly scandalous. Or sliding my fingers along your thigh.”
His cheeks flame brighter.
“Excellent,” she says.
“Don’t tease him,” I say. “That’s my job.”
Her brows waggle. “Is it now?”
“It is.” I lean over toward Connolly and stage whisper. “Is that a rainbow over your head or are you just happy to see me?”
He relaxes and gives a soft laugh, shaking his head.
“I’m missing something, aren’t I,” Vanessa says.
“Yes,” Connolly says. “And we aren’t telling you what it is. Now, I was looking for a server to get us a drink, but may I instead suggest we cut this part of the evening short and continue to the main event? We must be fashionably late by now.”
“We are,” Vanessa says.
“Then lead the way.”