When they went back to the office, Nellie felt as exposed as a carcass in a butcher's window because the staff couldn't seem to take their eyes off her. "I love your
hair", young Sally murmured shyly, when Nellie caught her mid-stare. Quickly, Nellie went over the budget for the coming Saturday's twenty- first and signed off on the forty-five thousand dollar
cost. Sally was still not used to these kinds of figures and when Nellie handed her back the paper she ventured " The parents must be very wealthy."
"Well they're not stinting on it. Costs a fair whack to book the Art Gallery of New South Wales for a private function." Nellie looked at the young girl she'd hired only recently and remembered her commitment to teach her the business. "This one is a carrot. Fran tells me rumour has it the father will announce the girl's engagement at the party. If everything goes off well, we'll be first in line for the wedding. That's why we're doing this one on a such a low profit margin. The wedding will be the main event, make the big money."
Nellie gathered up the bag of hair products Alexander had insisted on, and the sleek, gold carry bag that held the boxed Manolas and headed for the lift. The hangover was threatening again, and the covert looks were giving her the willies. She wanted to soak in the bath and figure out how she might excuse taking Tom to the ball, without looking like a total loser.
At home, she wrapped herself in the comfort of her mother's old robe again and, while she was running the bath, she caught her reflection in the mirror. The new sleek, sexy hair made the dressing gown seem even more ludicrous. Nellie knew she'd have to keep this a private fetish. If anyone saw me in it they'd think I'm losing my mind. She pulled the worn chenille tighter and inhaled the reminiscent fragrance of lavender talc. Oh God Mum, I really miss you. The acoustic attack of the door buzzer made her jump. "Who is it?"
Well at least she wouldn't have to change. Tom knew she still wore their mother's dressing gown around the house. When she opened the door to him he gave her a hug and surreptitiously sniffed at the robe. "You'll have to bin it eventually you know Nell. It's practically in shreds."
"I know, I just need a bit longer." Her handsome big brother, now the person she loved most in the world, held her at arms length.
"You look terrific. Wow, my sister the sexy beast."
"Very funny Tom." She flicked her hair around in demonstration. "But it does feel better. What are you doing here?"
"I got your email about the ball, thought I'd better tell you in person. I can't make it. That's the night of the International Human Rights conference. Geoffrey Robertson is coming from London as the key speaker and he's my personal guest."
All the air seemed to leave Nellie's body and she slumped onto the sofa, like a deflated balloon. Tom sat next to her and took her hand. "Now there's nothing to worry about. I've got a date for you. He's a great bloke, I promise you could take him anywhere and hold your head high."
"So now I'm a charity case? Please rescue my little sister, because she can't get her own fella. Or are you his boss?... do me this favour or else..."
"Actually, I'm doing him a favour. He's only been in the country a week, he's here from Brussels, studying our immigration law. He knows hardly anyone and the king pins at the Opera Ball will make great contacts. He jumped at the idea." Tom felt the problem justified the lie
. "I hate balls Tom, I have to go to so many back home and talk to fat men in penguin suits and dance with their voracious wives " were the actual words Nick had used. "But I'll do it if you let me use the firm's lodge in Queenstown. I'm off for a few days skiing." So tomorrow Nick would be enjoying the early ski season in New Zealand, along with the spectacular view and comforts of the prestigious law firm's private lodge, complete with cook and housekeeper.
"What's his name, this Belgian?"
"Dutch, not Belgian, it's Nick, Nicholas, or rather N i c o l a a s, von Amsberg."
"And he doesn't have two heads, or a cauliflower ear or anything?" Nellie was determined to sulk.
"According to the girls in the office, he's a hunk. Don't quite see it myself, but then I don't have the same point of view." Tom was used to being the firm's pin-up boy, no way was he giving in to the competition.
"So when do I meet this paragon, this Nick? The ball is only a few days away you know." Tom got up and went to the drinks tray to help himself to an Irish whisky but when he hoisted the bottle it was empty. He raised his eyebrows enquiringly at his sister. "No, I don't have another bottle Tom. I'm off the booze at the moment." The way Nellie's head was currently feeling she even thought she meant what she was saying. "Tomorrow, can you make it tomorrow, even if the three of us just have a quick coffee?"
Tom pulled a face that Nell recognized, the one he'd used on their mother when he knew he was in trouble. "Bit awkward I'm afraid. He's skiing in New Zealand, won't actually be back until Saturday."
"Well I'm sorry Nell, it's the best I could do!" Tom looked at his watch and grimaced. "Look, I'll have to go. I've got to brief a client who's in court in the morning." He put his arm around his sister's shoulder and made her walk with him to the door. "He really is a very nice bloke Nell, good-looking and personable. I know you'll like him."
"But I won't have set eyes on him before the night."
"But you'll talk to him. He's going to phone you tonight and check the arrangements. It will be fine, I promise. I wouldn't let you down Nellie." He kissed his sister goodbye and pulled at the sleeve of the ratty old robe. "She'd never forgive me."
Now it was four days since the stranger with the deep voice had introduced himself over the phone. He had sounded pleasant, but rather businesslike, and wanted all the fine detail of the arrangements. When Nellie had explained about sitting at the table with the royals, Nicolaas ...("please call me Nick, Nicolaas sound so pompous")...had sounded surprised, then not altogether pleased. "Didn't Tom tell you about Princess Mary?"
"No, no he didn't mention it." Nick sighed, scaring the life out of Nellie, who thought he might pull out of the whole thing. But he quickly came to the point. "There will be a security check, you'll have to give them my details. I'll email through my passport number and date of arrival. That will sort things out." Then he just seemed to want to hang up. "I look forward to meeting you in person on the night. I'll collect you at 6.45."
That was now just over two hours away, and now Nellie knew just how a baby must feel locked in a high chair, because she was completely hemmed into her favourite armchair by the trolley table Fran had brought to the apartment with her. "God Fran, this looks like enough equipment to perform plastic surgery, not just do my makeup." Fran kept adding to the collection of brushes and jars on the trolley.
"Well I brought a choice of colours and foundations. I need to match your skin tone as well as possible. The idea of professional make-up is to look like you're hardly wearing any." The former film make-up artist gave her boss a wry smile, "and that can take a lot of doing."
"Well I hope you're faster than Alexander. He had me in that chair again for two hours this morning." When Nellie turned her head towards the mirror, the reflected sheen was dazzling, like one of those phoney shampoo commercials. "Heaven knows what's in that treatment he uses, probably crushed pearls or satin fibres or something. Nothing ordinary could do this to hair."
"Well keep it out of the way!" Fran was in master- painter mode, and the artist's model hardly dared utter another word until the final unveiling, forty minutes later. "There, you can look now." When Fran handed her the mirror, Nellie stared at the stranger in bemusement. It took her brain several seconds to catch up with her eyes.
"You did perform plastic surgery Fran, how come I didn't feel it?"
Fran looked over Nellie's shoulder at the reflection, well pleased with her efforts.
" Light and colour is all, brings out the green in your eyes and highlights those cheekbones. You've got lovely skin Nellie, you should take proper care of it." Fran removed the clip that was holding back Nellie's hair and the effect was even better. "Now I'll make us a cup of tea, before we get you into that dress. I'll re-do the lips after."
Nellie's nerves started to jangle, she didn't want Fran around when Nick arrived. There was no way to warn him and it would be obvious he was a blind date! "I can handle that Fran, you don't have to wait around, I've taken up enough of your weekend." Fran looked put out. She thought of pushing the point but, after all, Nellie was her boss.
"I'll just have a quick cuppa then, and leave you to it. Make sure you have pictures taken though, everyone at work will want to see how great you look."
What my date looks like, you mean. "I promise. I'll try to get one with Princess Mary." Fran took her time making the tea, and Nellie grew more edgy every minute. It was just over an hour before she was to be collected, but I can't just push her out the door, she'll get suspicious. While they were sipping the tea Fran eventually poured, the door buzzed. Nellie jumped, spilling hot tea down the front of the new bathrobe she'd bought when Fran announced the make-up session. While she was wiping it down Fran pressed the button, opening the downstairs door. "Fran, who is it? You should have asked! I don't want to see anyone now." But Fran just smiled.
"I know who it is." A minute later she opened the apartment door to Derek, who walked straight in, grinning like he'd just blown out the candles on his own birthday cake. Without a word, he handed Nellie a small metal attaché case. It was surprisingly heavy, and it was locked. "Oops!" Derek took a small key out of the top pocket of his jacket and held it out to Nellie, teasingly.
"What's this Derek, what have you been up to?" Fran's smile had widened. "The two of you, you're in this together."
"Oh come on Nell, open the case!" Fran was so excited her voice was squeaking. "Open it!" Inside the metal case was another, smaller, slimmer case. But this one was black velvet, with a decorative gold catch. When she opened the catch and raised the lid, Nellie echoed Fran's gasp.
Displayed against pale satin was a necklace that managed to be both simple and sumptuous. Four strands of large black pearls, whose deep lustrous colour was like reflected starlight, graduated inwards. Across the entire width of the rows of pearls sat a magnificent clasp. Its base was a large, rough-cut fire opal, held in a web of platinum that seemed to have ensnared diamonds, emeralds and sapphires at random. Displayed above it were earrings, drops of sapphires and emeralds, each ending in a perfect black opal with a fiery heart.
For several moments it was as silent as a church, as the worshippers took in this vision. Nellie was the first to speak, but she could only raise a whisper. "For me to wear tonight?"
"That's what Claudio made it for, to have you show it off at the Opera Ball. When I told him you were sitting at the table, he jumped at the chance. I took him a little cutting of the dress fabric." Derek turned to Fran for confirmation "He's as picky as you said Fran, insisted on more details of the dress, so he rang Collette Dinnigan himself!"
"I'll have to give it back?" Nellie knew her wish was futile, but she couldn't help herself. Fran let out a laugh.
"Claudio Ferrante is a publicity hound. Two days after your picture appears in the society pages wearing this, it will be the star of his showroom. Heaven knows how much he'll want for it." The
three of them gazed down at the jewels, each writing out their own price tag. Derek was the first to come back down to earth.
"Put it on Nellie, I can't wait to see it on you."
"Not without the dress Derek. She has to get dressed first."
So Nellie let Fran help her into the gown and adjust it here and there, like the doyenne of a Paris fashion show preparing a model for the catwalk. Next came the fairytale shoes and suddenly Nellie was the tallest person in the room. "I hope you don't suffer from Vertigo boss " quipped Derek, as he tied the fine silver leather strings around her ankles.
"I just hope I can walk in them." Nellie took a few tentative steps, as if she were crossing the Grand Canyon on a tightrope.
"Not like that, just walk normally. Just move the legs, the shoes will follow. Don't look down." Fran was a fully paid-up member of the mile-high-heels club, she could run a marathon in the gorgeous Manolas. Not looking down did the trick and Nellie circumnavigated the room regally, albeit slowly, to Fran's approval. Next came the touch ups; hair, lips, perfume. Then Nellie reached out her hand.
"Earrings please Derek." Each of the beautiful drops slipped smoothly through her lobes and locked into the clasps behind. Their length pointed up Nellie's fine, slim neck and the flashes of fire in the opals matched the rich colour of her hair.
"Are you ready?" Nellie nodded and Derek reverently lifted the necklace from its box and placed it around her neck. The she closed the magnificent clasp that sat mid-way across the right hand side of the circle made by the rows of pearls. Then she blinked, to see if she was really awake and not just dreaming.
"Oh, Nellie." Fran's eyes were misting up and suddenly Nellie was overcome with the need to give her a kiss.
"Thank you Fran. For everything. You too Derek." When she kissed him on the cheek, Derek turned bright red, revealing a side of himself Nellie had never even suspected. Then the emotional cloud she floated on suddenly burst, as the entry door buzzer rang loudly. "Oh no! What's the time, it can't be that time yet!" Nellie grabbed at Derek's wrist. "Only half past, maybe it's not him."
Fran was now leaning over the balcony. She called back to them. "It's not one of out limos...it's, well it is a limousine, but doesn't look like a hire, black with a big badge thing on the side. Looks like an embassy car to me. There's a flag too, can't quite see it." The buzzer sounded again, this time more insistently. No way out of it, now Nellie would have to introduce them to a man she'd never even seen before. How would he play it? Would he make a fool of her?
"Go and see what Fran's on about will you Derek." She picked up the door phone and held her hand over it, while Derek went past her to the balcony. "Nick, is that you?"
"Yes it is. I was becoming concerned I had the wrong address."
"You're early, I still have some friends here." The voice on the other end sounded puzzled.
"Do you wish me to wait out here?"
Nellie spoke softly into the phone "It's just that...that they think we're...friends." Was she being too subtle, would he understand? Derek came back and started signalling at her, so she resumed a normal tone. "Yes, I'm ready. Come straight up, I'll see you in a minute." As she buzzed Nick into the building, she caught more of Derek's mime performance. "What, what is it?"
"The opera glasses, where are they, Fran wants a closer look at this limo." Nellie thought the distraction might save her, so she quickly went to a desk drawer and passed him the mini binoculars. Then she waited close by the door, while Fran and Derek played I Spy on the balcony.
"The flag, I think it's Dutch. Yes it is, there's a Dutch Coat of Arms on the side door." Fran, as the protocol expert in the events company, was familiar with all the national colours and symbols likely to turn up at a top Sydney gathering. She turned to Derek with a puzzled frown. "What did Nellie say this Nick's name was?"
"I don't remember, van or von something, one of those we certainly never voted Hitler in kind of names."
"Not German you fool, Dutch, Hitler invaded them, remember?"
"Yeah, whatever, but I don't remember his name." Now Fran was fingering her phone at light speed. "Who the hell are you ringing? Can't it wait?" Derek was dying to meet the boyfriend, and couldn't understand Fran's sudden distraction.
"Internet, not phone call, here we go...van Amsberg... does that sound right?"
"Could be, I'm not sure."
"Prince Claus van Amsberg husband of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, German diplomat ...yadada... yaddada...died 2002.....yadada...bugger, page won't load."
"Fran...Fran, he's here." Fran closed the phone and shoved it in her pants pocket, as Nellie and her escort walked towards them. Standing behind Derek she whispered into his ear. "Close you mouth Derek, you'll catch flies." But she was glad Derek was in the front row, one look at Nicolaas van Amsburg and her own knees had turned to jelly. But it was immediately obvious that he only had eyes for Nellie. And why not, she looks absolutely amazing.
With the formalities over, Nellie and her escort left Fran and Derek promising to lock up, and headed for the lift. Fran went straight back to the internet, while Derek studied the limo through the opera glasses, dying for one more glimpse of his new dream man. Our Nellie, who would have thought it?
"Yes!" Fran punched the air and ran onto the balcony. "Got him! Nicolaas van Amsburg, nephew of the late Prince Claus van Amsburg of the Netherlands, associate counsel to the Human Right Commission 2006, Brussells, graduate Cambridge/London School of Economics... yadada..yadada...thirty four years old ...unmarried, yes!...like most Dutch royals Count Nicolaas prefers the informal and goes by Nick..."
"Bloody hell!" Derek drew Fran over to the railing. "Nellie tripped, she's lost a shoe".
On the street below, Nick had his arm around Nellie, while she leaned against him, hovering on her one very high heel. "I'll see to the shoe, but first let's get you to the car." He lifted her easily and sat her on the back seat, as the chauffer held the door wide. "It was my fault I'm afraid Nellie. I shouldn't have asked you to point the Southern Cross out to me. But the sky here, it's so much starrier, so much more beautiful." He looked straight into Nellie's eyes. "Everything here is beautiful, just like Freddy told me."
"Cousin of mine, married an Australian girl." Then the tall figure turned back to the pavement and retrieved the shoe, smiling back at her as he held it up and it sparkled in the street lighting. "Put you foot out, I'll do it up for you."
Nellie moved forward to the end of the seat and raised the satin to reveal her finely stockinged foot. Nick knelt beside the car and lowered her foot onto his bent knee. While he was unravelling the mystery of the tiny silver strings, Nellie studied the large, decorative medallion on the driver's door, opened back beside her. The round shape was emblazoned with the Dutch national colour; bright, strong orange.
"It's smart isn't it, against the black?" When Nick looked up, she pointed to the car door. "It makes the car look special." Count Nicolaas van Amsberg shook his head at Ms Nellie Shanahan with a smile that made her heart do back flips.
"I always feel like I'm riding around in a great big pumpkin."
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