“Wow,” he said, his eyes widening behind his glasses. “Is that you, Ashley?”
A knot of doubt clenched my stomach. What the hell was I doing? I was stupid to think I could pull off a look like Dawn’s. I would be a laughingstock.
I stepped backward into the room. “I, er don’t feel so good,” I said, my mouth forming a lie about nausea and sickness, a contagious rash and a sky-high fever.
“Well, you certainly look good,” he said, following me in. “In fact, you look, if you don’t mind me saying, absolutely stunning.”
I turned to him, a bubble of hope rising in my chest. “Do you really think so?”
“Hell, yeah.” His gaze flicked to my toes then back to my face. He blew out a breath that made his jowls wobble. “Blimey, if I was thirty years younger and didn’t have my Janice, you would be in trouble, young lady.” He gave a good-humored chuckle. “I love your party look, glad you don’t wear it to the office though, the guys on the next floor wouldn’t get anything done, particularly Gareth.”
I smoothed my hands over my hips and looked at my shoes.
“Really,” he said, his voice quieter, “you look perfect for the Christmas party except…”
I gulped. “Except.”
“I’m a guy and I don’t really know about this sort of stuff, but do you have a pair of earrings or a necklace? My Janice always puts something a little sparkly on, especially for a Christmas night out, she says it makes her feel nice.” He smiled gently at me.
“Oh, yes, actually I do have a necklace…somewhere.” I dug into the side pocket of the bag and pulled out the silver necklace my parents had bought for my twenty-first birthday. It was a thin link chain with a tiny diamond-encrusted heart pendant.
“Here, let me,” Derek said, reaching for it with his podgy fingers.
I turned and scooped up my puff of hair to expose the back of my neck. He lifted the necklace and fastened the clasp at my nape.
“Thanks,” I said, studying my reflection in the mirror one last time. I looked good, Derek was right, what I was wearing was perfect for a Christmas party and, it seemed, was perfect for me too. I tried to feel angry at Dawn, but staring at my new image all I could feel was gratitude. I should have listened to her earlier, years earlier. Because now I felt like Saffron and Daisy and Henrietta all rolled together.
I licked my bright-red lips and tasted a hint of the strawberry gloss the lipstick was infused with. I was ready to come out of my hole.
Derek and I walked into Morgan’s Champagne Lounge only a few minutes late. The place was buzzing as people stood chatting, laughing and drinking at the wide wooden bar. Waiters in black tuxedos and neat bowties moved around carrying silver trays heavy with canapés and flutes of champagne.
I stepped in and stood a fraction behind Derek’s wide body. A gut-twisting nervousness wound through me and I suppressed a sudden wave of nausea. What if my dress was hugely inappropriate after all? What if people laughed at little Ashley Jones trying to look sexy and feminine? Perhaps the stockings and shoes were going too far, maybe they made me look like the office tart instead of the office mouse. I knew which I preferred.
Derek turned to me and smiled. He handed me a flute of sparkling bubbles that misted over the top of the glass and dampened my hand. “Cheers,” he said, clinking rims. “Here’s to another successful year at Safe as Houses.”
“Yes, cheers.” Urging my hand not to shake, I took a sip and glanced around. There were more men than women in the room. But the half dozen or so women, mostly older than myself, all wore dresses of varying clinginess and party colors. I noticed Rachel from the Huddersfield branch, ten years my senior, looking elegant in a figure-hugging purple number and her hair piled on her head in a chignon. Her shoulders were set down and her head tipped as she spoke with a smile.