‘That’s the one.’ Felicia smiled as she stepped back and admired the dress on her client.
‘You really think so?’
When it came to fashion, Felicia knew what worked and was both confident and assertive in her role. She wore a black shift dress from the boutique’s winter range and her thick blond hair was tied in a low side bun. A deep red lipstick provided a pop of color, but it was the client that Felicia wanted to stand out.
And in the dress that Felicia had suggested she try, Cindy most certainly did.
It was late afternoon on Christmas Eve and, with last-minute shoppers and the Devereux Ball tonight, Felicia was more than busy; still, she did her best to take time with a rather nervous Cindy.
As a retail assistant at a very exclusive Madison Avenue boutique, Felicia was used to dressing the rich and famous, although Cindy was neither. While assisting her, Felicia had found out that she had just completed an exhausting course of chemotherapy and was hoping to get some of her old sparkle back. This shopping trip was a promised treat from her devoted husband. One they possibly couldn’t afford. ‘I don’t think he realized just how expensive it would be,’ Cindy worried as she studied her reflection. ‘It does look amazing though…’ She halted as the curtains opened.
It was Jacinta, the owner, rather rudely interrupting the fitting. ‘Felicia, can I have a word.’
‘I shouldn’t be much longer,’ Felicia responded.
Felicia did her best to stop her jaw from gritting as she gave Cindy a smile. ‘I won’t be long.’
She headed to the small office beside the male fitting area but, as always, Felicia’s confidence and assertion left her when she spoke with her boss. ‘I was with a client. You always say to give them my full attention…’
‘Well, she’ll hardly be a return customer.’ Jacinta waved dismissively. ‘There’s no way she can afford that dress.’
Felicia held in an angry sigh and again forced a smile. ‘What can I do for you, Jacinta?’
‘You can cancel any plans that you have for tonight.’
Felicia blinked. She was already working from midday tomorrow to set up for the Boxing Day sale. All she wanted to do was collapse in front of the television and watch a slushy movie with a slice of pizza and a glass of wine, but it would seem that Jacinta had other ideas for her tonight. ‘Your presence is required at the Devereux Ball. Abe Devereux seems to think you got on well with—’ she snapped her fingers, trying to remember the name of the woman who Felicia had assisted the other day, and for whom they had been secretly preparing a gown for Abe to surprise her with ‘—the large woman.’
‘Her name is Naomi,’ Felicia snapped, not that Jacinta noticed.
‘Yes, well, Abe wants someone to keep a subtle eye on her.’
‘Are they dating?’ Felicia frowned. The Devereux were all playboys, but from all Felicia had heard and read, Abe had long been involved with, Candice, a member of the high society.
‘God, no,’ Jacinta dismissed. ‘I think this Naomi’s a friend of his brother’s wife. It sounds as if he’s been lumbered with her for the night. She won’t know anyone and we all know how bitchy these balls can be.’
The amazing thing was, Felicia thought, Jacinta didn’t get the irony of her own words, although she had more on her mind than her spiteful boss right now. ‘Jacinta, as much as I’d like to help, I really can’t…’ Rarely did Felicia stand up to her boss. The truth was she needed this job too much, but there was no way she could attend the Devereux Ball tonight.
Leander Carmichael moved in the same circle as the Devereux. He even had an apartment in the very hotel where the ball was being held.
It was where they had met more than a year ago.
She had been heading for home, having just delivered a coat to a client who was a guest at the hotel. She had been wearing a black shift dress and expensive velvet shoes, which were the uniform of the boutique, but Leander had assumed she was a guest, or there for drinks…
Felicia had never corrected him.
It was where they had first made love.
And where Leander had ended them.
Unknowable, he had called her.
No, not cold, she had wanted to refute, for he set her on fire. But yes, she had kept herself distant, sure that if he knew the real Felicia, then he could not want her.
The real Felicia, who lived in a crummy bedsit and had no real family to speak of, save for her mom in prison. The real Felicia, whose designer clothes were actually her work wardrobe. How could she tell him that the polished young woman was a persona she had developed from listening to clients?
How could she admit that she was a lie?
And so Felicia hadn’t; instead, she had kept up the pretense, letting him think she had a far more glamorous life, as well as a family who adored her.
Never allowing him in.
The surge of memories rendered Felicia silent, and Jacinta wasted no time jumping in. ‘Felicia, do you really expect me to say no to a Devereux?’
Of course not. They were NYC royalty, and the brothers were Jacinta’s biggest clients. Every season Felicia headed to their sumptuous headquarters and helped them select their wardrobe for the upcoming season. For the last three months the boutique had been humming in preparation for the ball. Of course Jacinta wasn’t going to say no to a Devereux, but if forced, she made it very clear what the consequence would be, and Felicia could not afford to get fired.
‘Word gets around, Felicia,’ Jacinta said with a warning edge. ‘Now, am I to ring Abe Devereux and tell him that you’d be delighted to keep an eye on Naomi tonight?’
‘Good! Now, hurry up with that woman, and then we’ll get to work on you.’
That woman or, rather, Cindy, was now dressed in jeans and had placed the dress back on its hanger. ‘I’m going to have to pass,’ she said with a wistful sigh. ‘It’s gorgeous, but I really can’t justify it.’
‘Was it for a Christmas party?’ Felicia asked, happy to offer a few tips and maybe suggest a couple of cheaper purchases that might pep up an outfit she already had.
‘No, for New Year’s Eve,’ Cindy said. ‘We’re having a party then to wave off this horrible year and really ring in the new. It sounds silly, but I wanted to show my family and friends the new me, how I’d come through…’
‘I get it,’ Felicia said.
More than anyone, she knew the difference the perfect outfit or accessory could make. Felicia had had an extremely challenging upbringing with a neglectful mom, but, as a young teenager, her caseworker had given her a care package. It had mainly consisted of toiletries and tampons and things, all of which Felicia had been incredibly grateful for, but nestled within had been a red silk scarf, tied up in a silver bow. Whoever had donated the gift had wrapped it with loving care. It had been, and still was, the most beautiful thing Felicia had ever owned. The scarf had held the scent of its previous owner’s perfume and Felicia had imagined her as both glamorous and kind.
That simple scarf had transformed her tatty jeans into an outfit. It had brightened not just her clothes but her mood, and she had sworn, when she wore it, that one day she would put the chaos of home behind her and reinvent herself.
She visited her mom once a month and they spoke on the phone, but for the most part she had put her terrible upbringing firmly behind her and not just moved on—she had run from her past.
Yes, Felicia knew how the right clothes changed a person’s confidence, and so as Cindy thanked her for all her help and wished her Happy Holidays, Felicia told her she was working during them and said something that she really shouldn’t. ‘I’m here on Boxing Day. Why don’t you come in then?’
Cindy frowned and then got what Felicia was trying to say—the dress would be reduced in the sale.
Oh, Jacinta would fire her on the spot if she ever found out, but Felicia had simply had enough of her insufferable ways.
Now she just had to find the courage to move on.
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