‘Don’t wear perfume,’ Jacinta warned. ‘And be sure not to spill anything…’
Felicia stood, arm raised, as her boss pulled up the concealed side zip and relayed instructions.
‘And when anyone asks about your gown, be sure to let them know that it’s from the next season’s range…’ Jacinta paused, and then gave a rare compliment. ‘Believe me, you’ll be asked. It looks as if it’s been designed exclusively for you.’
The gown really was exquisite.
The fabric was a lustrous silk charmeuse in deep scarlet, with elegant lines that married well with Felicia’s slender frame, and a boatneck exposed her naked pale shoulders. It had proved impossible to get a last-minute booking and so Rhina, the manager, had pinned her hair, though Felicia had done her own makeup. Although Jacinta had strongly suggested red lips to go with the gown, Felicia had gone with neutral.
The lectures continued as Jacinta drove her the short distance to the hotel. ‘And remember, Naomi is not to know that you’re being paid to keep an eye on her.’
‘I’m being paid?’ Felicia said.
It was the first she’d heard of it and, judging by Jacinta’s sudden silence, also the last.
God, this was the last place on earth she wanted to be, Felicia thought as the iconic hotel came into sight.
Too many of her memories were housed in this place, and they all bore Leander’s name.
As she walked the red carpet alone, Felicia recalled Sunday afternoons, walking into the hotel together hand in hand after a summer walk in the park. And in the lobby, as she was handed a rose, instead of taking in the sumptuous decorations, she looked over to the bar where she had met Leander some evenings.
She’d scoured thrift stores for designer labels and even taken to hiring outfits, just to look the part. Squeezing in a blowout after work that she could ill afford.
Just trying to keep up with his glamorous life in an effort to not let Leander down.
The ballroom was stunning—huge chandeliers cast dancing beams of light on the beautiful people beneath. Felicia’s eyes searched among the guests. Naturally she looked for Naomi, but her stomach was tight with anticipation that she might, after all this time, finally see Leander.
He wasn’t here.
Oh, there were hundreds of guests, but it took only a matter of moments to be certain that Leander wasn’t one of them, despite the presence of a few men who were just as tall or had chestnut hair and a stance that made her heart leap at a hundred paces. Even the men with their backs turned who almost fitted the Leander bill were dismissed with a sweeping glance, for his very stance was encoded to memory, right down to the minutiae of the nape of his neck.
No, Leander wasn’t here.
Felicia let out a sigh of relief and told herself it was not one of disappointment.
It was, in fact, a wonderful night.
The champagne was as icy cold as a New York Christmas Eve night and the music was sublime. Felicia really wasn’t needed, because Naomi truly was the belle of the ball—turning heads wherever she went. There was only one time that she looked a little awkward and alone, and it was then that Felicia made her way over and tapped her on the shoulder. ‘I knew you’d look stunning…’
‘Felicia!’ Naomi’s smile was genuine and wide, and she seemed thrilled to see another familiar face. ‘How lovely to see you.’
‘It’s even lovelier to see you!’
They chatted easily even when a gentleman dressed in gold robes joined them and gave a nod to Felicia.
‘The speeches are about to start,’ he informed Naomi. ‘Would you like to move closer to the front?’
‘I think here’s fine.’ Naomi smiled, clearly happy to stay a little in the background. It was all very relaxed until a woman approached, clearly having decided they ought to be standing at the front.
‘We’re fine.’ Naomi politely smiled.
‘I was actually speaking to the sheikh prince,’ the woman said in an affected voice.
Goodness, Felicia thought, biting into a little chocolate cup. She’d been just about to ask the sheikh prince to grab her another glass of champagne as the waiter passed!
The speeches were gorgeous and soon over, and as the night was fading away, Felicia watched as Abe took Naomi in his arms and they danced.
Oh, Jacinta was wrong, for clearly Abe was far from lumbered. In fact, watching them dance, watching his pride in her, witnessing the bliss of their togetherness brought a sting of tears to Felicia’s eyes.
It was clear though that Abe could not linger. There were demands on his time, and after a couple of dances a blushing Naomi left the floor and made her way back to Felicia. The night was winding down. Even though the band was still playing, people were starting to leave, ready to get home for Christmas.
God, she could not cry here, but Felicia truly wished she hadn’t come, because she had always felt lonely at Christmas.
‘Abe has to see everyone off,’ Naomi explained, and then said the same to the sheikh prince, who had made his way back over, and it dawned on Felicia that perhaps this eminent man was keeping a watch on Naomi, too.
‘Do you want to get a seat,’ Felicia suggested.
‘No, I might just nip to the loo,’ Naomi said.
Felicia frowned, not understanding what she meant.
‘The restroom,’ Naomi explained.
‘Good idea,’ Felicia nodded. ‘I’ll come with you—there’ll be a rush on soon.’ She didn’t really need to go, but mindful of her duties, she followed Naomi across the ballroom. It was then that she heard her name.
And it was then everything changed.
She froze as Leander made his way over.
‘It is you!’
‘Leander…’ The air felt too thick and her mouth felt dry as she tried to remember her manners. ‘Leander, this is Naomi.’
‘Naomi.’ He too attempted to be polite, but Naomi must have picked up on the electric air, for she smiled, made brief small talk and then headed off to the restrooms, leaving Felicia to face Leander for the first time in what felt like forever.
‘You look wonderful,’ he said.
Leander looked stunning, too, but then again, from the moment they’d met, he had never once failed to take her breath away.
‘Are you here with someone?’ he asked.
‘No,’ Felicia said, and then swallowed. She could hardly say she was here to watch out for Naomi, and so she did what she did best with Leander and settled for vague. ‘I’m here for a work thing.’ She hurriedly moved the conversation to him. ‘What about you?’
‘I promised Abe I’d look in.’
‘I didn’t see you…’
‘Because I only just arrived,’ Leander said, ‘but don’t tell Abe.’
She gave a half smile, an awkward smile. Felicia truly didn’t know how to make mere small talk with him, but she tried. ‘What are you up to?’
‘I’m working in the Middle East on a project with Khalid…’
‘The guy you were just standing with.’
That he was on first-name terms with a sheikh prince only reminded her of their differences. ‘What sort of project?’ Felicia asked, because she had learned long ago that most people loved to talk about themselves.
Only Leander wasn’t like most people.
‘I really don’t want to talk about work. Felicia…’
They were standing close to the exit and guests were starting to disperse, eager to get home to babysitters and beat the rush for cars.
‘I have to go,’ she said hurriedly, for although people were leaving, the band still played. She felt rather certain he was going to ask her to dance, and she simply did not know how to be held by him only to have to let him go. No, there could be no casual dance, nor a little catch-up for old times’ sake. She was too overwhelmed and too raw and hurting from their parting for that. But as she turned to go he caught her wrist lightly, and though he did not ask her to dance Leander halted her with his words. ‘I’m sorry, Felicia.’
‘For what…’ she attempted.
‘I was too harsh on you.’
Felicia didn’t know quite what to say. She had never been the recipient of a true apology before, but there was no mistaking this was one, for she could hear the regret in his tone. She had truly thought that Leander had walked away without a glance, that the guilt and recrimination at their parting all belonged to her. After all it was she who had hidden in their relationship. It had been her lies or lack of openness that had torn them apart.
And now here Leander was apologizing.
‘It’s fine,’ Felicia said, and attempted again to go, except her legs refused to move, and his hand had moved from her wrist and now loosely held her fingers.
‘No,’ Leander said. ‘It’s not fine. I knew that the moment you left …’ He stopped then, thankfully refraining from raking over old and painful ground. ‘Dance with me, Felicia?’
‘Because I happen to be here?’ she said with an edge.
‘Because even if you want nothing more to do with me, we can at least end things on a better note.’
Still she didn’t answer.
Nor did she leave.
And then Leander played a final card.
‘Because ten minutes from now it will be Christmas.’
Felicia knew she should really walk away.
Accept his apology and simply go, but as it was announced that this dance would be the last of the night, Felicia instead took the chance to be back in his arms…
Just one more time.
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