“No, I want Betty,” Carter said. “Tell her it’s Carter. She’ll know who I am.”
The salesgirl compressed her lips into a thin line. “I’ll go find her, sir. Just a moment.”
Carter turned to me, looking satisfied. “Betty will find you the perfect dress. She’s been dressing my mother for decades.”
We waited for a few minutes, standing awkwardly in the middle of the store. Well, I felt awkward, anyway. Carter seemed perfectly at home, hands tucked casually in his pockets, his coat draped over one arm.
“You said it’s a charity ball,” I said finally, breaking the silence. “What charity?”
“Well, maybe charity was the wrong word,” he said. “It’s an arts fundraiser. Not my chosen cause, but my mother asked me to go, and I feel obligated.” He sighed. “She thinks that I’ll eventually get tired of supporting social justice organizations and devote myself to the arts.”
“I thought you liked art,” I said.
He smiled at me. “I do. I’d just rather invest my energy elsewhere. These galas are a waste of time. They serve no purpose but to impress rich people with their own magnanimity. The hors d’oeuvres are usually nice, though.”
Finger food didn’t sound like enough of a draw to me, but what did I know? “But I don’t have to dance, right?”
He laughed. “I was joking. There won’t be any dancing.”
“Well, I didn’t know,” I said, embarrassed.
“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t tease you about things like that. There is dancing, sometimes. Just not at this one.”
A movement in my peripheral vision caught my attention, and I turned my head to see an elegantly dressed, silver-haired woman walking toward us. She was old—really old, definitely in her 80s—but she moved quickly and and with purpose.
Carter turned around when he saw that I was looking at something, and I watched as his face lit up in a huge smile. “The woman herself,” he said, stepping forward, and bent to kiss the old woman on both cheeks. “Betty, I hope I’m not taking you away from something important.”
“You are, but you’re worth it,” she said. “How is your mother?”
“The same as always,” he said. “You know how she is.”
The woman smiled. “Oh, I do indeed. And who is this lovely young lady?” She turned to me and offered her hand.
I shook it, relieved that she had given me a cue I knew how to respond to. “I’m Regan,” I said.
“Regan. What a delight.” She seemed so warm and sincere that I found myself relaxing, and returning her smile. “My name is Betty, and it seems that Carter would like me to find a dress for you.”
“Charity ball tonight,” Carter said. “You know the one. She doesn’t really have anything to wear.”
“She will soon,” Betty said, looking me up and down. “Dressing you will be a delight, my dear. You have a lovely figure.”
I blushed. “Um, thank you?”
“Oh, and shy. Aren’t you a doll. Yes, I think we’ll get along very nicely. Carter, you go sit over there and keep yourself occupied. Regan and I have some important business to take care of.” With that, Betty nodded firmly, told me, “Right this way,” and led me off into the depths of the store.
I cast a glance back over my shoulder at Carter. He winked at me.
Acting on impulse, I blew him a kiss.
“Let’s go through the racks together,” Betty said. “I think you’re a woman who knows what she likes. With your coloring, a jewel tone, I think. Do you prefer red or blue?”
I thought about it. “Red.”
“Ruby, then,” Betty said. “Or maroon.” She stopped at a display of dresses and smiled at me. “We’ll find you the perfect dress.”
“I believe you,” I said.
It took three hours, but Betty kept her promise. She made me try on more gowns than I could count, in all colors of the rainbow, and we ended up deciding on a sleek mustard-colored confection, cut low in the back. “Very Michelle Williams, 2006 Oscars,” Betty said. “You’ll be the center of attention, my dear.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I said, staring at myself in the mirror. I never wore yellow—I’d gotten the idea, at some point, that it wasn’t a good color for me—and it was like seeing someone in public who you recognized but couldn’t place, some phantom out of the distant past.
Betty pursed her lips. “May I give you some advice?”
I looked at her, this old woman who had dressed New York’s elite for decades. I wondered what she had seen, what secrets she’d been told. “Please,” I said.
“Carter is a good boy,” she said. “Very kind. But you, I think, need a delicate touch, and he won’t always remember to provide it.” She cocked her head at me. “Look after yourself. It’s all that a woman can do, really.”
“I know,” I said. I smoothed the skirt of my dress.
“Well,” Betty said. “Let’s find you some shoes.”
She wrapped everything in tissue paper and packed it away in a bag before she sent me back to Carter. “Let it be a surprise,” she said. “He’ll be too stunned to speak when he sees you.”
“I hope so,” I said.
She took my hands in hers and said, “Best of luck to you, my dear.”
“Thank you,” I said. “For everything.” And then, without thinking about it, I bent and kissed her papery cheek.
I went to find Carter. He was sitting where we’d left him, scowling at his phone. He put it away when he saw me, and smiled. “Success?”
“Success,” I said. I showed him the bags. “You don’t get to see until later.”
“Betty’s had her way with you, I see,” Carter said. “The conspiracies of women! She charged it to my account, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll pay you back—”
“Absolutely not,” Carter said. He touched my cheek. “Regan. You’re doing me a favor. I know you don’t want me to buy things for you, but let me do it just this once, okay? You know the money is nothing to me.”
I knew, and that was the problem. But I couldn’t afford the dress—the price tag had been well into four figures—and Carter was looking at me so earnestly, so badly wanting me to accept his generosity, that I couldn’t find it in my heart to refuse. I thought of what Betty had said about how I needed a light touch. Well, maybe Carter needed someone to be gentle with him, too. “Just this once,” I said, and he bent to kiss me, right there in the middle of Bergdorf Goodman, and for once I didn’t even care who was watching.