Sean came up behind me and wrapped his arms round my waist.
‘You look fabulous,’ he said to my reflection, nibbling my ear lobe as he smoothed the velvet of my dress, stretched tight across my stomach. ‘Do we have to go to this do? I’d much rather stay up here.’
The gown fitted like a sausage skin and I was already regretting tucking in to the complementary nibbles. My tummy bulged, I was hot and uncomfortable and I definitely didn’t feel fabulous, but Sean didn’t seem to notice; his eyes were dark with longing. I pulled a face at him and wriggled free.
‘You wanted the invite,’ I retorted. ‘We can’t let them down at this stage, can we?’ I grimaced at the mirror one more time, grabbed my evening bag and headed for the door. ‘You coming?’
It wasn’t really my scene; a charity ball at the poshest hotel in town, hobnobbing with the great and the good, most of whom I wouldn’t know, or care to impress. I wasn’t looking forward to small-talking myself round a table of strangers whilst Sean went off to do his inevitable networking. But at least the organisers had booked us a suite for the night, a treat way beyond our usual means, and earlier I’d bathed in scented bubbles with a glass of champagne on hand. So not all bad, then.
The ballroom was stunning; thousands of tiny lights adorned the walls and ceiling, pinpricks twinkling on midnight blue drapes.
‘They all get auctioned off at the end,’ said Sean, pointing to a table centrepiece, an exquisite, intricate construction.
‘Do they?’ I asked. I couldn’t imagine what anyone would want with such a thing. ‘We could just do with something like that at home…not!’
Sean squeezed my bottom as we moved round the dance floor and manoeuvred through the throng towards our table. He handed me a glass of champagne from a passing tray and I began to relax.
‘Jane. Jane!’ I looked round to see Pamela, a colleague from head office, waving madly at me. She crossed her eyes comically and gestured towards the man in the seat next to hers.
‘Poor Pam,’ I whispered to Sean, ‘looks like she’s got stuck with old Williams from Bought Ledger. I’ll just nip over and say hello.’
‘Take your time, I’ve just seen someone over there I want to talk to.’ Sean pecked my cheek. ‘We’re on Table 23, by the way. See you in a while.’
By the time I managed to extricate myself from Pam almost everyone was seated. I slid into my chair beside Johnny Davison, a local wheeler-dealer who was our host for the evening. Johnny started to make introductions but had to stop when the toastmaster rose to his feet and banged the side of his glass for attention. Johnny shrugged apologetically.
‘No worries,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘I’m no good at names, anyway.’
As I stretched across for the water jug I froze. Directly opposite, almost hidden by the enormous centrepiece, was someone I knew. He was staring at me in a quizzical manner, as if he thought he knew me too, but couldn’t quite place my face.
There was no escape. ‘Hello, Charlie,’ I said. ‘Long time, no see.’
Next to him, a delicately boned young woman wearing a wisp of a dress snorted into her drink. ‘Charlie,’ she giggled, taking a swig of red wine. ‘He’ll love that.’
‘Thank you, Mandy,’ Charlie snapped. He looked back at me and his face suddenly changed. The mask of polite curiosity turned into an expression of such awkwardness I almost felt sorry for him. ‘Jane!’ he spluttered. ‘Good God. I didn’t recognise you.’ He recovered himself pretty well, turning to his companion. ‘It’s Jane, darling. We were at Borthwick’s together.’
Mandy didn’t seem bothered one way or the other. She poured herself another glass of red. ‘Really?’
‘You look completely different,’ Charlie said.
‘That’s the love of a good man for you,’ I said, smiling at Sean across the table. ‘Anyway, how’ve you been since then? Still married, I presume?’
‘Mandy is my second wife,’ Charlie explained, as if attempting to fill me in on his last five years in one sentence. ‘Just had our second anniversary,’ he added hurriedly. ‘Anyway, you’re looking good. Very good. You’ve lost some weight, if I’m not mistaken, and changed your hair.’
‘A major disappointment can do that to a girl,’ I said. ‘Makes her want to make a few changes, you know how it is.’
Mandy leaned forward at this point and tilted her glass in my direction. ‘You’re right,’ she slurred. ‘That’s what happened to me.’ She looked sideways at her husband and frowned. ‘Isn’t it, Charlie?’
‘Don’t start, Mandy, please.’ Charlie shifted uncomfortably in his chair. ‘Not here, not now.’
‘He’s very good at disappointment, our Charlie,’ Mandy continued, ignoring her husband, her voice rising against the general hubbub of conversation. She plonked her glass on the table, spilling bright drops of red wine on the pristine damask, and there was an unfortunate lull as everyone round the table turned towards us. Mandy shrugged. ‘I used to weigh thirteen stone,’ she announced. ‘So at least I’ve got something to be thankful for.’
The band had set up on the stage whilst the waiting staff were clearing the tables and when they struck up with a rendition of Last Christmas, I was transported back to the staff Christmas party where it had all began.
Charlie had been a bit of a presence about the Bothwick’s office and I couldn’t believe it when he’d pulled me, chubby, plain Jane Lomas, onto the dance floor. He’d run his hands all over my ample curves, murmuring in appreciation. By the end of the evening, I had consigned my marriage to the dustbin. I was besotted.
We talked about being together forever. Charlie promised to leave his wife if I dumped Sean. I should have heard alarm bells – he never even mentioned her name, it was always ‘she’ or ‘her’. But I was so smitten that, to my eternal shame, I did exactly as he wanted. Sean had been devastated.
I looked across the table at my husband. He was deep in conversation, but sensing my gaze as he always did, he turned and winked. That night five years ago he’d been so upset I could hardly bear to think about it now. He’d helped me pack some things into the car and stood at the garden gate, tears pouring down his face as I’d driven away.
I’d waited at the agreed rendezvous for longer than strictly necessary, but of course, Charlie didn’t show. He wasn’t at work the next day, either, or ever again, and the last I’d heard he was heading up some government think tank fifty miles away in the next county.
I looked at Mandy now, her trembling hand clumsily refilling her glass. I didn’t doubt for a minute that she’d been Charlie’s next conquest, though she’d managed to get a step further then me. I remembered a piece of advice an older colleague had given me. When a man marries his mistress, she’d said, he creates a vacancy.
In Mandy’s face I could see the watchfulness of constant suspicion. Every smile, every compliment her husband paid another woman would lance her soul like a shard of ice. Did she check his pockets, his mobile phone? Was she full of doubt every time he made yet another outlandish excuse for his lateness? I felt sorry for her; she would never know a moment’s peace, never know the contentment and security of being truly loved.
‘I missed you, you know,’ said Charlie. Mandy was asleep, slumped on the table with her head resting on her arms.
I smiled brightly. ‘You certainly did. I waited over two hours, more fool me.’
He was still a striking-looking man but I wasn’t tempted. I lived each day with the knowledge of how badly I had hurt Sean and how lucky I was that he had forgiven me. ‘It was good to see you again,’ I lied as I stood up and smoothed my dress over my hips. In the last years I’d almost won the struggle with my weight, I’d changed my hairstyle and the way I dressed. I was aware of my husband watching me from across the table. He excused himself and rose to meet me.
‘Would you like to dance?’ he asked as he took me in his arms and kissed me, oblivious to the stares of our companions.
‘Actually,’ I heard myself say, ‘I was rather hoping you’d like to come upstairs.’