Watching her, my own shoulders relaxed. As I set them down I felt the arch pull in the small of my back again. It felt nice, as if I was proud of my body. Hell, I was. I’d just looked in the mirror. With my new curves I was a similar shape to Rachel. Why shouldn’t I stand tall and proud? The nausea and nerves subsided and I took another sip of champagne, holding out my little finger like I’d seen ladies do in the movies.
“I’m so glad the merger with Camilla Homes has happened this year,” Derek said. “It’s incredibly beneficial for the company. I’m pleased to have seen it happen before I go.”
“Go?” I asked, snapping my attention away from Rachel and the arch in my back. “What do you mean go?”
“Ashley, poppet. I’m sixty-four, sixty-five on New Year’s Day. I’ve decided to retire. Janice and I have always dreamed of a cruise and the appeal of days out on the golf course has been growing for some time now.”
“But, but there is so much more I thought you wanted to do at Safe as Houses.”
“Well, there is more I want to do, you’re right. But not at Safe as Houses. Out in the big, wide world. Retirement is an adventure, not just for me but for Janice too. She’s been planning a whole host of things to keep us young and occupied over the next twenty years.”
I looked at his eyes, sparkling with enthusiasm. “Well, in that case I’m very happy for you. But of course I’ll miss you terribly. You’ve been a great boss.”
“And you’ve been a great employee. You’ve always got your head in the computer working hard. But I’m sure I’ll be in to say hi to everyone from time to time.” He took a mouthful of his drink. “But I don’t want a big fuss, a party or anything, so Ray Burgess is going to announce my retirement at the end of tonight and then I’ll hand over quietly to my successor in the holidays.”
I couldn’t imagine going into work and not seeing Derek there. Not having him lead meetings in his firm but gentle manner. Who else would make the effort to bring in cakes and fizz when it was someone’s birthday? Who else would be so understanding about the need for an occasional “duvet day” when the weather was horrid and Monday morning just too much to handle?
“Derek, Derek, how are you? So glad you made it through the blasted weather.”
Ray Burgess, owner of Safe as Houses, stepped up and pressed his hand onto Derek’s shoulder.
“Hi, Ray,” Derek said, smiling.
“And who is this?” Ray turned to me. He was the same age as Derek, with thinning hair scraped back over his balding crown. He too, was pot-bellied and his tie had pictures of tiny houses on it. On the roof of each house a mini LED flashed like one of our little alarm boxes.
“You must remember Ashley Jones,” Derek said. “She joined us here last year.”
Ray’s gaze slid down my body, over my chest, my hips and to my shoes. “No, I can’t recall that we had the pleasure of being introduced,” he said, returning his gaze to my face just before I was weirded out by his gawp.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Burgess.” I remembered us being introduced the year before. But what was the point in arguing? I clearly hadn’t been memorable.
He smiled and shook my hand, wrapped it entirely in his hot, slightly damp one.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a loud voice boomed from the doorway right behind us. “Would you all please take your seats for dinner?”
Gratefully I extracted my fingers from Ray’s and turned. The head waiter was gesturing toward the restaurant opposite the bar.