“I have to run, but I’ll be in touch.” She brought her hand up again to Declan’s shoulder while she said it. She definitely meant touch.
I grew quiet, focused on my salad. What were those red things in it anyway, sort-of chewy and nutty?
“Goji berries,” Declan whispered to me.
I still gave him a quick smile, but really I was thinking what was up with that lady? Was that the type of woman Declan spent time with now? She’d be right at home in his private plane. They certainly seemed to know each other well. Maybe all this connection I felt with Declan was in my head, the sad concoctions of a lonely woman who desperately needed a reason for this agreement to be OK, to mean more than it did—a raunchy, debauched week. Paid to do his bidding.
“Let’s get out of here.” Declan rose, napkin down on the table, hand outstretched to me.
“Happy to.” I brought my hand to his and away we went.
The next couple of hours passed like a montage from a romantic movie. Arm in arm, Declan and I strolled through Central Park on the sunny June day, pausing to watch street performers dancing on roller skates or drumming on overturned plastic buckets. When I exclaimed over a horse-drawn carriage, Declan insisted and we hopped on one ourselves.
“It’s like the whole city’s a carnival!” I exclaimed, marveling over a man walking along on stilts. “Is it like this all the time?”
“Pretty much,” Declan confirmed.
The driver delivered commentary in a full, brash accent that he explained was “all Bronx, sweetheart.” We passed a glassy expanse of flat water featuring model sailboats. A couple of little boys shouted over two that raced, neck and neck. I took it all in, the tall, ornate stone edifices of the Upper East Side, the cooler-than-school teens with tattoos and piercings and dyed green hair.
Declan wrapped an arm around me. I liked the feel of it, possessive, protective.
“This afternoon you have a four o’clock appointment for a fitting.”
“I’m taking you to a gala Saturday night. It’s black tie. You’ll need a ball gown, and the gown will need to be fitted.”
“A fitting for a ball gown.” I shook my head, amazed by the strange mix of familiar and new. He was still Declan, the man I’d first met when he was just 21, already hardened with the demeanor of a stray, scruffy and ill at ease. The same Declan who knew our local diner and had spent so many days and nights on my family’s ranch. Now he talked about an entirely different world with the expertise of a native tour guide.
“I’ll have to leave you for a couple hours,” he apologized. “I have some meetings. But I’ll meet you later at the dressmakers.”
“I’m sure you have a lot of work to do.” I suddenly felt self-conscious, like I’d been monopolizing his time and wasting it. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to show me around. I’m sure I can find something to do here in the Big Apple.”
“I’m happy here with you.” When he said it, it felt real.
He walked me to the entrance of what he called the MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art. Encouraging me to look around, he explained my fitting was only a few blocks away.
I had to admit, a lot of that museum went right over my head. White-on-white, blocks stacked up, I didn’t get it. But the colors and faces in a painting by someone named Klimt reminded me of an old quilt we had. I knew someone in the family had made it, but not who, and something about that painting made me feel exactly like I was looking straight at it. I spent a while looking at a Pablo Picasso painting called Repose. He’d done it way back in 1908. The angles and lines, the woman’s closed eyes and the way she rested her head in her hand, I wanted to know her story, why she felt so sad and exhausted.
But the one that knocked me way back, where I spent about 20 minutes just sitting was Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. I’d heard about him, how he’d cut his ear off and sent it to a woman. That kind of story stayed with you. But I’d never seen one of his paintings before in person. The vivid swirls, the strokes of color, so vibrant and thick and teeming with life. I’d never studied art, lacked all the right words to describe it, but something in it moved me, deep. I’d looked up at starry nights before and felt just like he did, like this painting made me feel, enveloped in the universe. I guessed that was why they called it a masterpiece.
At four o’clock I managed to get to the address Declan had given me. It didn’t seem right. I didn’t see the name of the store anywhere, nothing displayed in the windows, just a golden plaque to the side of large, ornate, heavy doors embossed with small letters: la modiste. I pressed the doorbell.
A tiny woman with a bun met me at the door. Instead of the tight, fragile look of the elderly woman at the restaurant, she bustled with vivacious energy. She moved with the grace of a ballerina yet possessed the stern command of a governess.
“Miss Brooks?” She spoke with a thick accent that I couldn’t immediately place.
Before I knew what was happening, she had me in a back room standing up on a block, stripped down to panties and a bra in front of a three-way mirror. An assistant measured me all over with a cloth tape while the older woman surveyed me from various angles. Based on the amount of tsking and tusking, I could tell she didn’t like what she saw.
“Four days! Not nearly enough time. I cannot work miracles!”
“I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I didn’t know I was coming to New York.”
“And this!” She brought a hand to my bosom. “What am I supposed to do with this! You are Kate Upton here.”
“Oh, no, I’m not—” At least I stopped before I finished explaining I wasn’t actually the model Kate Upton. I realized she was using the comparison as an insult. But all words of protest fled my mind when another assistant walked into the room through a side door carrying a red, full-length evening gown straight out of a movie.
“Arms up!” the tiny woman commanded me. “Stomach in!” As they brought the dress down over my head, I felt like a slab of beef, and a fat one at that.
But then I saw myself in the dress. Strapless, it dipped down into a V in front with embroidery and beading along the edges. It came in at my waist and traveled down to my ankles with a slit up to mid-thigh. I looked ready for the Oscars.
“What? How?” I started to bring my hands to the fabric.
The mean tiny lady screamed, “No touching!”
I brought my hands up like she was the police.
“Arms at your sides.” An assistant tugged both sides of the dress around my back. “Corset!” The head dressmaker yelled like she was calling for a medic. Another assistant went running.
I didn’t care how mean these ladies were, how much trash they talked about my curves. If they made me look this good before the dress really even fit me, they could do whatever they wanted. They were magical fairies.
The phone rang and the mean lady disappeared to answer it. Or torture someone in another room, either scenario seemed plausible.
“Who are you with?” the assistant asked, a slew of pins in her mouth as she fit the dress to my curves.
“Declan Hunt?” I answered, unsure whether I’d heard her correctly.
“Declan Hunt,” she repeated, shaking her head. “Never heard of them.”
“Not them, him.”
“What did you ask me?” I felt like I was in the middle of a joke but couldn’t get the punch line.
She spit out the pins into her palm and tried again. “Your agency? Who represents you?”
“Oh, I’m not, I don’t have anyone representing me.”
“No?” She shrugged. “I assumed. Madame does not fit a dress for everyone, the bourgeoisie.”
“She is VIP at the gala,” Madame explained, entering the room again.
“I am?” I asked.
“Mais oui,” she nodded. Oh, so they were French. I felt dumb for not know
ing it right away, now it seemed so obvious. “Monsieur Hunt is hosting.”