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ONCE UPON A TIME PT1

Short story By: Dancer
Romance



A fairy tale for grown-ups? You betcha! Length required part 1 & part 2. Both posted


Submitted:Apr 22, 2007    Reads: 279    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   


Her nose creaked. She'd had the operation but her nose still creaked, with no warning, as if someone was stepping on a loose board inside her sinus cavities. Her sinuses were now much clearer but the creaking still drove her crazy, especially when she lay down. So her eyes were puffy, because she slept fitfully. A puffy-eyed, creaky-nosed insomniac with pale skin and rusty, steel-wool hair. I may as well forget it.
Nellie studied the forlorn image in the mirror and forced the reflection to smile at her. It didn't work, she still wanted to cry. Idiot! Your eyes will disappear altogether if you do that. She poked her tongue out at the girl in the mirror and gave her the finger. Getting mad was better than getting maudlin.
Five days, five days until they would all know she couldn't get a bloke, well, until it was confirmed. Nellie knew they talked about her, postulated, took bets about the state of her hymen. But they did it covertly. She was the boss, the power, the brains of the division. She was what made them the most successful event management team in a city that liked to party big time. She was the one responsible for the bonuses. And now one of those bonuses was responsible for her wretchedness.
It had been a coup, getting the gig. The fiftieth anniversary of the Australian Opera called for an outstanding event, something the media would jump on like seagulls on a chip bag; something different, classy and tempting to the glitterati.
"We're prepared to spend money to make money", the CEO of the Opera Company told the thirty competitors present at the briefing. "If this event is done right, opera subscriptions will flourish. We're expecting it to deliver at least a five percent increase on current numbers. It's an election year and this conservative Government is keen to be seen to support the arts. The goods and services tax on books has created a lot of bad feeling and they want to make up lost ground." He gave them a conspirator's grin, "They'll dig deep on the budget, so get creative."
Nellie placed huge plaster sphinxes around the base of the platform the amazing Sydney Opera House seems to float on and, with genius lighting, turned the tiled, sail- like structures of its roof into a cluster of pyramids. A thousand guests were rowed on giant Cleopatra- style barges from the landing stage opposite, usually reserved for the swishest international ocean liners.
Flanked by the mythological figures and the entire opera chorus and orchestra in Egyptian regalia, guests blinged up to the eyeballs climbed the vast steps as if mounting the pyramids themselves, to the glory of Verdi's Aida resounding around them and across the water.
The city was gob-smacked. And so was the Opera Company. That night, subscriptions were signed up that would fund productions for a further two years. "No matter who wins the bloody election!" the CEO delighted in telling Nellie. "Something special's coming your way, my girl. It will be in the post in a week or so."
Money was the usual bonus. When events went off particularly well, clients tended to tip, and it wasn't unusual for every member of the team, from waiters, florists, cooks and cleaners to administrative staff, to come away with extra cash in hand. Nellie was unerringly fair in distributing it, unlike many of her rivals, who kept a lion's share. That's why the team was so successful, because they were not a bunch of casuals cobbled together event by event. Nellie had lopped off the dead wood early on, now they really worked well together, each knowing what was expected, and delivering.
When the envelope arrived at her office Nellie was curious as to how big the cheque would be. She knew the cost had caused palpitations around the board room table of the Opera Company. But the government had stayed true to its word for once and footed the bill, officially dubbing the Australian Opera a National Treasure.
It wasn't a standard envelope, it was larger, and the paper was thick and velvety, an ideal base for the handsome, embossed logo. It looked formal, like a wedding invitation, and an invitation it proved to be. But not to a wedding, to a ball, the Opera Ball, highlight of the social set's year. You couldn't buy your way in. By invitation only was the rule strictly adhered to, and an invitation was a passport to la-la land, the social strata peopled by the rich, famous, beautiful, or talented. An invitation anointed you as one of them and opened doors you'd never even dared to knock on.
If she pulled this off, Nellie knew that she'd never have to compete in the same way again, for the grandest weddings, the most extravagant parties. She'd be the friend they called when they were planning a soirée darling, she'd betheir kind of people. The iron-clad guarantee? The invitation stated that she would be seated at Table Number One, where the Opera CEO and his wife were playing host to the guests of honour, His Royal Highness, Prince Frederik of Denmark and his consort, Princess Mary, Australia's own Cinderella. The scream of excitement Nellie let fly instantly had half the staff crowding into her office. Speechless, she handed the embossed card to her assistant to read aloud.
"Sir David and Lady Carter request the pleasure of the company of Ms Nellie Shanahan and partner at the Opera Ball, to be held on April 21st in the ballroom of the Royal Army Barracks, Macquarie St. Sydney. Ms Shanahan and partner will be seated at the host table. As guests of honour, His Royal Highness Prince Frederik and Princess Mary of Denmark, are at this table it is requested that other guests do not take their places here until after the royal couple are seated. Commencement time;7.30pm. Dress;Formal." Awe-struck, the team members stayed silent for fully five seconds.
"Oh my God Nellie! What are you going to wear?!" Derek, the beautiful young man famous for his profligate floral decorations looked at the best boss he'd ever had and decided it was time to come straight out with it. "Not that dreary old black number again, it makes you look like an undertaker's wife."
"Shut up Derek, you cretin. It's weeks away, time to knit a bloody dress if we have to." Fran, the gossip guru, who made sure seating plans separated wives from mistresses and toy boys from grumpy old husbands, agreed with his opinion of the black dress,but no need to hurt her feelings. "Anyway, Nellie can't choose a dress until she knows what Princess Mary is wearing. You're not supposed to wear the same colour."
"Well I hope the Princess wears black.' Derek always had to get the last word in.
Nellie didn't have a clue what they were on about, she was too busy concentrating on the gold lettering jumping out at her, Ms Nellie Shanahan and partner. Then Fran's words started to seep through the fog in her brain. " you're already cleared because we handle so many official functions. But whoever you take will have to undergo a security check, because you're right there next to the Royals."
"What? What are you saying Fran?"
"Your date, the lucky bloke you take with you. They're bound to want him checked out first."
Derek rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Oh come on Fran, you don't think anyone will turn up in a burqa, and they're certainly not going to lift all those socialites' skirts and check for grenades. They're Danish royals for God's sake, terrorists have probably never heard of them!"
Fran ignored Derek and addressed herself exclusively to her boss. "The Danish embassy will require a list of guests, possibly they'll only cast a perfunctory eye over them, unless anyone stands out. But the people at the table with their Highnesses will get looked at very carefully. You know they keep the tables quite intimate. It's not a state occasion. There's probably only twelve of you altogether." Fran pulled up short, considering the significance of her own words. "Wow! You'll be the talk of the place. It's a major social coup, it's incredible, actually."
"Who will you be taking boss? " Derek flashed his perfect, pearl-like teeth and looked at Nellie through the long, thick eyelashes all the girls in the office coveted. "It really needs to be someone who looks good in a tux and knows how to behave at these things."
"Also needs to be straight Derek." Fran got her own back, with a grin.
" I don't see why. I'd be on my best behaviour. I'd just gaze at that gorgeous Frederik all night. He obviously goes for Aussies, might be in with a chance there."
Sally, at eighteen the newest and youngest member of the team, audibly gasped at Derek's outrageousness. When he puckered up and blew her kisses, she didn't know whether to giggle or run for cover.
"Seriously though Nellie, you've got to knock 'em dead. I'm going to see to it that you look like a million bucks. If you won't let me hold your hand on the night, you'd better have a bloody good substitute. Maybe Hugh Jackman's free?" They all laughed of course, but Nellie got the message load and clear...You're representing us all so don't let us down by turning up with a dork.
Well here she was, with only five days to go and no escort for the ball. That's what comes of being the only twenty-seven-year old virgin on planet earth, Nellie told the face in the mirror and from being a workaholic. Bono's lament In The Name Of Love saved her from further self-flagellation and Nellie waited a few extra seconds before responding to her ringtone because she was certainly in a U2 kind of mood.
"Ms Flanagan?"
She recognised the voice, with its particular musical pronunciation. She'd heard it several times in the past three weeks. "Yes, Mr. Rasmussen", Nellie sighed into the phone.
"I apologise for calling again, but I'm afraid I must now insist on the name of the guest you will bring to sit at their Highness's table next week. He is the only person not cleared as yet and the Security Office here at the embassy is becoming concerned. We would not wish to cause you any embarrassment, nor the Australia Opera Company. But we will need time to make these enquiries."
"I do realise Mr Rasmussen, I'm truly sorry."
{indent]"Is there a problem Ms Flanagan, something your partner does not want revealed perhaps?"
"No, it's nothing like that, it's...well the truth is that I haven't decided who is coming with me Mr Rasmussen. I...well it's an honour isn't it, sitting with Princess Mary?" Nellie caught the sharp intake of breath on the other end of the phone.
"Indeed it is a privilege to be seated at the table of The Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark and his consort Ms Shanahan. That is why I must insist on receiving this information within the next forty eight hours. Otherwise, I'm afraid you will be required to come without an escort. An official from the Danish Embassy will take the place. We cannot leave an empty chair at the royal table, you understand."
"Of course, of course Mr. Rasmussen. I do understand. I will have a name for you within that time I assure you I will. I'm sorry for the delay, I'm really sorry." The official softened his tone a little
"That's alright Ms Shanahan. As long as you meet the deadline there will be no difficulty I'm sure. It will be a wonderful occasion, I know their Highnesses are looking forward to it."
When she hung up, Nellie threw herself full-length on the sofa and started to cry, inducing the self-fulfilling prophesy, even puffier eyes. She'd just have to admit defeat and take Derek after all. Then they would all know, including the former Mary Donaldson, now Her Royal Highness, the Princess Mary. Derek might be beautiful and witty, but no one would mistake him for a man after Nellie's body. That's what I want them all to think! I want them to think I'm sleeping with some terrific man, that I have a real life!
Wiping the streaky tears away and blowing her nose, Nellie made an effort to pull herself together. She opened her laptop and clicked on the folder Opera Ball. Here she had filed details, such as the hideous cost of the Collette Dinnigan dress Derek has insisted she was tall enough to get away with, exclaiming; "My God, you have got a bosom! Why on earth do you hide it under those awful wrap things you wear all the time?" The dress was simple, except in the wonderful bias cut and the heavy,midnight blue silk-satin that stroked her body in all the right places, before falling in soft folds to the floor. She had given in, although it cost three month's worth of her substantial salary. Then she realised it was probably tax deductible, after all, she was obliged to accept her client's invitation wasn't she? And she had to represent the company in royal style. So Nellie had started a file, documenting the costs involved for her accountant.
This was also where she had noted the cost of renting a bloke, the kind of escort who would make everyone sit up and take notice. But of course, with the security check, the Embassy would know and the word would get out somehow. Anyway, that film with Deborah Messing, The Wedding Date, it gave the game away. Derek would be onto it. Half of them are probably old boyfriends of his.
She'd also made a list nominated Potential Escorts It was pitiful, just two names, and she'd written them both off earlier. But now desperation kicked in and she went back to them.
Paul Merchant; Paul was the closest Nellie had come to full-blown sex. While they were wading their way through the mire of part-time study, both determined that an MBA would further their career prospects, she and Paul had fallen into the habit of going for a coffee after the evening class. Over a year of semesters, a coffee became a drink, then dinner and one night they ended up back at Nellie's place, both a little the worse for wear. Nellie was desperate to join the ranks of the initiated, and Paul was keen to oblige.
Unfortunately, the two bottles of shiraz they'd managed to get through during their late meal had not only gone to his head, but to other, more mechanical parts. Paul looked down in disbelief, sat down on the bed and projectile vomited onto the floor. That was five weeks ago, and in the two following classes Paul had sat as far away from Nellie, and as close to the door, as possible. He'd scurried at the end of the lectures, and now the semester was over.
Dare I ring him?Nellie had been tossing this about since the invitation came, wondering whether the chance to bask in the royal limelight might outweigh Paul's shattering embarrassment. If he went easy on the wine, the night might end up even more memorable. Nellie only had his email address, but an email would be too easy to ignore so now she looked up the number of the financial advisory he worked for, took a deep breath and picked up the phone. "Paul Merchant please, in superannuation."
"Mr. Merchant is not available. I'll put you through to his PA." Before Nellie could demur, a woman's voice informed her,
" Tara speaking".
"I was actually after Paul Merchant, but I'll call back later. Do you know when I'm likely to catch him?" Tara gave a pleasant laugh.
"Not for the next three weeks, unless you want to interrupt his honeymoon. Can I help you with your enquiry/"
"No, it's...I'm calling from Sydney University, just confirming Mr. Merchant's subject selections for the up-coming semester. We've sent the letters out, it's just a courtesy call really...no worries." Nellie didn't know whether it was anger or shock that made her hands shake as she hung up. You cheating bastard!She made herself a strong espresso then, as an afterthought, added a hefty shot of Irish whisky. It helped and she consoled herself with the knowledge that she'd had a lucky escape. I might have fallen for him. Just as well he couldn't get it up.
The other name on her list was the one who would doubtless make the right kind of impression, even on the royals. At thirty-five Tom was already a $5000 -a -day man, a silk other councils dreaded coming up against in the high-profile, high court actions that regularly made headlines. He also sported the blued-eyed, black-Irish good looks that made women forgive him anything. Tom would know half the people at the ball and be the best company Nellie could imagine. She adored him. But he's your big brother for Christ's sake. How sad would that look!
Nellie thought about another coffee. Then she decided against the coffee and settled for just the whisky. Then another couple of large ones seemed a very good idea. As the peaty warmth spread through her chest, she put the whole sorry story in an email to her big brother, including the tale of Paul Merchant, aka rat-man. So you're my handsome date. She signed it, Nellie, the family virgin, and clicked send.
When she got up from the computer,it dawned on Nellie that, in spite of it being ten thirty in the morning, she was plastered, blotto... you're pissed as a newt, young lady. She wove her way unsteadily towards the bathroom, shedding the threadbare chenille robe of her mother's that let her pretend she hadn't died four months ago, and the raunchy, live-in-hope, black nightdress under it.
The cold shower hit her like an icepick to the brain and she was instantly sober. Unfortunately she was just as instantly hung- over. While she was trying to shrink her head back to size, under the cold water, the front door buzzed. Nellie had put the security buzzer in the small hallway, so that she could hear it if she was taking one of the long, very long, baths she indulged in.
Go away, just go away. But whoever it was ignored the telepathic message and buzzed again, persistently keeping the finger on the button. Retrieving the dressing gown from the floor, she wrapped it around her shivering form and pressed the answer button. "Who is it, who's so impatient, down there?"
"It's me Nellie" Fran's voice answered " and Derek's here too. We've come to make sure you don't chicken out on the hair appointment." Nellie had forgotten all about her promise to let Alexander, the hair guru they used for all the bridal parties, have his way with her curly red mop.
{indent] "Oh hell, is that today?"
"Forty minutes from now, to be exact. Let us in."
Nellie surveyed the mess she'd made of the living room on her wayward path to the shower and reverted to her strictly-business tone. "I have to get dressed. You wait in the car. I'll be down shortly." She looked in the mirror again. Her deep auburn hair was now past her shoulders and the dormant curls had taken over, like coils of rusty wire springing out of her head and shooting off in all directions. She realised they had a point, it could use a tidy up. Any woollier and I'll look like a red sheep. So Nellie let Fran and Derek take her to the hairdresser.
The minute Alexander set eyes on the mass of wild red hair he started waving his arms about and painting air pictures of the order he would bring to the chaos. "How could you let this happen? You look like you've got a Flokati rug on your head!" Even Derek thought this was going a bit far but when he went to open his mouth Alexander silenced him with a murderous look. "You should have brought her to me sooner. This will take hours, so you two can go off and shop till you drop."
"They stay, or I'm out of here". Nellie was regretting letting them talk her into this. But Alexander's fingers were throbbing with the urge to wield the scissors, such a creative challenge hardly ever came his way, so he compromised.
"Ok, they can stay. But I need carte blanch, no interference, no snide little comments along the way." Nellie thought that Alexander would make a good Head Nun, perhaps he should add the character to the drag act Fran had confided was his famous party piece.
Four hours later, when Nellie walked back into the sunlight, she literally felt light-headed. The springy curls had been chemically tamed and her hair brought to a silky shine. Alexander's magic scissors layered and shaped it to her head and fanned it across the back of her long, slim neck in a fine curtain that still carried the hint of curl. Because of the smoothness, the impact of the rich natural colour was immediate. Nellie shook her head, like a pony flicking away the flies, and the heavy hair swayed, a sensation she'd never felt before.
"You know it looks brilliant don't you?" Derek was so pleased with himself he couldn't stop smirking.
"Well it ought to, it cost a fortune!" Fran was furious that Alexander had charged at all, after the business she brought to him. If he wasn't so bloody good, I'd just dump him. But she brightened up when they got to the exclusive shoe boutique she recommended to the ritziest bridal parties.
"Anything you want Fran, anything, no charge." The perfectly-groomed owner turned to Nellie with a smile. "Of course, if anyone asks Ms Shanahan, I'd like you to tell them where your shoes came from."
{indent]"Well these obviously came straight from heaven." Fran held the Manolo sandals up and Derek moaned in ecstasy. The Lucite sandals looked like sparkling glass, you could see right through them. You'd never know they were there but for the skyscraper heels and fine silver leather edging on the ankle wrap and toe piece. The slim heels were much higher than Nellie ever wore. But these shoes were the most irresistibly decadent things she'd ever seen. She didn't care whether or not she'd be able to walk, let alone dance, in them.
"Of course, I only have the one pair, they're samples."
Nellie closed her eyes and held her breath while her left foot was slipped into the Manolo and the ankle wrap tied with it's fine silver strings. "Perfect fit, you have dainty feet Ms Shanahan."





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