Who in the world would have said no?
Certainly not me.
And don’t fool yourself; you wouldn’t have said no either.
If I’d known what was going to happen… No, even then I’m not sure I’d have refused to go. I couldn’t have. And I mean that quite literally. Couldn’t, as in not physically able to. Not without my body refusing to obey my commands, or losing the simple ability to breathe.
The biggest holiday bash in New York City, with reportedly a dozen different caterers booked for the event, five bands, everyone from New York’s ‘who’s who’ on the guest list, along with a few A-listers flown straight in by private jet from Hollywood, all that in a renovated mansion—a castle, really—right off Central Park… And of course, one of the most famous yet elusive men in town, a businessman, philanthropist and friend of the arts, just turning forty, and an eminently eligible bachelor…
Well, at least that was what newspapers, TV anchors and various blogs had been saying since October. I should know. I’d been reading every article and blog post, watching snippets of news where the party was mentioned almost obsessively.
Why, yes, I did make a scrapbook about it, but that’s part of my job, not a sign that I have OCD, not at all.
See, I think I was one of the first people not directly involved in the planning of that party to have heard about it. It was mid-August when Miss Delilah, my boss, received the envelope, and she must have been one of the very first guests who did. In the following months, that blue envelope became famous enough that dozens of articles and blogs posts were written about it.
Someone—someone obsessive, not at all like me—played Sherlock Holmes and discovered that the thick, textured paper from which the envelope and matching stationery were made had been handcrafted in a French monastery, and that the distinctive blue color came from a local flower. I could tell you which flower, but that’s hardly the point and again I’m not that obsessive about it. Really.
As I was saying, Miss Delilah received the envelope in August, and I got to open it, the way I do all her mail. She wants business correspondence on her desk when she comes down from the penthouse, which is usually around two or three in the afternoon. Personal letters, invitations to Broadway shows, gallery openings and things like that don’t make it to her desk until seven or eight when she’s done with work.
I knew which pile this would go in as soon as I looked at the return address. It was handwritten in elegant cursive letters, like Miss Delilah’s address. I recognized the sender’s name at once. I knew Morgan Ward to be Miss Delilah’s brother.
He’d never come to her office, at least not when I was there, but he called, every now and then. He’d never said more than a few words to me—“Mr. Ward for Mrs. Stanford, please.”—but he has the kind of voice that makes you shiver, and never mind what he says.
You know the kind of voice I mean; one of those rumbling, warm, rich chocolate voice with a touch of whiskey, the kind that any single woman, and probably quite a few married ones, too, would listen to for hours on end even if it meant listening to something as dull as the entire Federal tax code.
Or maybe that’s just me.
I couldn’t recall him writing to her before, and I’d undoubtedly have remembered if he’d sent such a distinctive envelope, closed with a perfect circle of red wax imprinted with a seal in which a W and M were superimposed. It felt old-fashioned and elegant, and I wondered if he’d addressed the envelope and imprinted the wax himself, or if he had a personal assistant to do these things for him.
I carefully slid a letter opener under the wax to lift it without breaking the seal and pulled out a sheet of blue paper that matched the envelope. The same W and M symbol was embossed in silver in the upper right corner.
A dozen or so of these letters have appeared in the press or online; you’ve probably come across one or two. Each one is worded a little differently from the others, but they basically all say the same thing: big birthday bash in December, everything red and black, starting at nightfall and until morning, pleasure of your company, in lieu of gift donate to charity, etc.
Miss Delilah’s letter was different. I must have read it three or four times, so I recall what it said pretty well.
“Dear Lilah,” it started, and that threw me off. I’ve never heard anyone call Miss Delilah ‘Lilah,’ not even Mr. Stanford before he passed away. It had to be a pet name from when they were kids, I thought at the time, but I’ve learned since then that if it is a pet name, it doesn’t go back that far. But I’ll get to that eventually. Let me go back to the letter for now.
You already knew I would, I suppose. Between you and Mother, what chance did I have, really? I’d tell you that there is no need for you to contact her and that I already informed her myself, but that would be robbing you of half your fun. So go ahead, gloat. But rest assured that the party is the only thing I changed my mind about.
Before you ask, no, I won’t need any help from you. I am quite capable of throwing a decent party on my own, even a party I give despite my better judgment. The same goes for the menu; I can plan it for myself, and as my guest I hope you will enjoy my choices of refreshments. I’m sure you will be busy enough deciding on your wardrobe and I wouldn’t want to trouble you with any such concerns.
There is no need for you to bring a gift, and I really do mean it, Lilah.
December twenty-first, nightfall, although I assume you’ll be fashionably late.
PS – NO gift. Please.
The letter was handwritten in dark blue ink except for his name, which was a deep red. Every other letter I’ve seen is all blue. None was sent before mid-October. Family first, I guess.
Now, I’ve worked for Miss Delilah for almost five years. I like to think I’ve learned to know her well—or at least, I believed that before the party. She always took Mr. Ward’s calls, even when she was busy.
Once, she interrupted a meeting with an ambassador to talk to him. I folded the letter again, set it sideways in the envelope so it’d be easier to pull out, and set that on top of her business letters. Ten minutes after coming in, she buzzed and asked me to put the party on her calendar. I said I would; truth is, I already had.
There was no RSVP card, no number to call. Mr. Ward must have assumed the people he invited would show up, and I doubt anyone who received one of those blue envelopes declined. Or maybe he didn’t care all that much who did show up in the end. With so many guests, it’s not like he’d notice anyway.
I didn’t realize right away what kind of party it would be, and by ‘what kind’ I mean the sheer scale of it. I’d seen Miss Delilah get excited about finding the perfect dress for an event before, so that was nothing new. The first time I noticed a mention in the press of the ‘Ward Bash’ as it came to be known, I felt a small thrill.
One of the perks of working for someone like Miss Delilah is that I often hear about things that will make the news long before they do. Some people would take advantage of it and try to sell what they know. I’d never do something like that. Miss Delilah’s trust is important to me. Or rather, it was. I’m not sure what to think of her anymore.
She ended up buying four dresses, from four different designers, all four of them blood red. Two of those were custom-made according to her own sketches. All were sumptuous, and I couldn’t wait to see which one she’d end up wearing. I doubted she’d decide until the day of the party.
That day, she didn’t come down from the penthouse; instead, sometime around four in the afternoon, she had me bring her mail up.
An advantage of owning the entire building of your company’s headquarters and of living there yourself: if you don’t feel like going to work, you can have work come to you. She doesn’t do it all that often, but I’ll admit I like it when she does. The penthouse is just breathtaking.
Every time I take her private elevator to get up there, I feel I’m stepping into a whole different world. The offices, and the rest of the building for that matter, have this open feel that comes from being high above the city with windows from floor to ceiling. There’s a lot of glass and steel all around. It was featured in some architecture and style magazine, once. The penthouse…
How can I describe it?
For one thing, it’s a sort of maze. When you walk out of the elevator, you’re presented with a half-moon wall with four identical doors spaced out evenly. In my mind, I call that first room the flowers room because there are always large arrangements of fresh flowers on stands between the doors. Most days, Miss Delilah comes down with a flower on her lapel or pinned to her breast, and I guess that’s where she gets them.
Of the four doors, I only ever go through the second on the right. I’m not sure where the others lead, although I wish I dared explore when I know she’s out of the building. The next room could be called a sitting room, I suppose, with its heavy carpets, assortment of sofas, love seats and armchairs, and the gas fireplace made entirely out of glass like a throne in the center of it all. Thing is, I’ve never seen a sitting room that was as large as my apartment. And no, my apartment is not tiny.
This room also has four doors: the one that goes back to the flowers room, and one on each wall. Again, I only know what’s behind the door directly across. If I didn’t have a good memory for places and directions, I’d probably get lost. As it is, it only takes me two or three minutes to cross five extravagant rooms and finally reach the antechamber where Miss Delilah always waits.
I say antechamber but really it’s a walk-in closet. A closet as large as my living room, but still a closet, with a shoe rack taking an entire wall, and opposite that wall rows of gowns, dresses, skirts, shirts and pants all perfectly organized. There are only two doors in that room, the one I come in and the one to her bedroom. I caught a glimpse, once, when she was walking back in. It’s done all in dark blue and navy colors, and the bed could fit at least five or six people.
Do I think it ever welcomed that many? I told you, I’d never betray Miss Delilah’s trust, not even now.
Especially not now.
That afternoon, she was still in her dressing gown, reclining in the Victorian fainting chair in the center of the room. The chair was upholstered in shiny black velour and looked simply gorgeous. So did she, in fact.
Her hair was done, half of it piled on top of her head in a regal bun set with pins accented with what I’d bet were real diamonds, and the rest framing her face and neck in elegant curls. Her skin is so pale that her hair seems darker for it, jet black, shiny and beautiful. Her make-up was perfect, too: just a hint of lipstick, a burst of pink in her cheeks, and smoky eye shadow that deepened her green eyes. Except for the robe, she was ready for that party.
She set the correspondence aside without giving it so much as a look when I handed her the tray and then she gestured for me to sit on the chair next to her.
“I can’t make up my mind,” she said, and only after I sat did I know what she meant.
Facing us, four mannequins displayed the dresses she’d had made for the party. I couldn’t help but smile.
“I can’t blame you,” I said. “They all look beautiful. And I bet they look even better on you.”
No, I wasn’t sucking up to her. It was only the truth. She has the kind of body that could make a potato sack look like high fashion. It’s not just her body, though. It’s her poise, the way she carries herself like she’s beautiful, knows she’s beautiful, and knows everyone looking at her, male or female, thinks she’s beautiful.
She made a little sound that could have meant ‘Of course they look gorgeous on me’ or maybe ‘you’re just saying that.’ I could feel it when her eyes turned to me—believe me, there’s no way not to know when she looks at you, the air is charged with electricity all of a sudden—but I kept looking at the dresses, thinking that if I’d been in her position, I would have had a hard time making up my mind as well.
“I think what we need is a fashion show,” she said, her voice a little aloof like she’d been musing aloud.
Immediately, I slipped into Private Assistant mode and worked up a battle plan. I would contact the designers, and have each of them pick a model that would best display the dress. Either they could contact the girls directly or I would do so myself. An hour, maybe an hour and a half depending on traffic, and Miss Delilah would get what she wanted. The way she always did.
Except… that was not what she wanted.
“The one on the far left first,” she said with a small gesture of her fingers. “Go ahead.”
I didn’t move. Blinking, I turned my eyes to her. She was watching me with a small smile and a perfectly shaped raised eyebrow.
“I’m sorry, Miss Delilah. I’m not sure what you mean.”
She clucked her tongue. “Of course you do, Lina. You’re going to model these dresses for me. Come on. The one on the left first.”
I was confused and amused and annoyed and absolutely certain that no, I wouldn’t do this, it was way beyond my job requirements.
And still, I stood and slipped out of my jacket.
Five years, I’ve worked for her. I’ve done a couple of strange things during these five years. Once, she had me jump in her private jet to go and have a pair of earrings fixed in the shop where she’d bought them in Paris.
“Only Michel can fix them right,” she’d said.
Michel turned out to be a master jeweler. He was also close to ninety, retired, wearing glasses as thick as my pinky, and his hands shook worse than the plane when we’d passed through nasty turbulences.
He came to the store in a taxi, took off his beret, sat down at what had once been his workbench, and took three hours to fix what in my humble opinion could have been repaired anywhere by any jeweler in ten minutes at most. But hey, I got to spend the afternoon in Paris so who am I to complain?
This had to be the strangest of her demands. I’m no model, after all. I mean, I’m not ugly or anything, and I try to keep reasonably in shape, but I already knew these dresses would not look anywhere as good on me as they would on her. She could be a high fashion model and wear the ridiculously small sample clothes that parade down runways. As a matter of fact, once, she was asked to be a guest model during fashion week. When she strutted down that catwalk in a black gown, I swear the entire audience stopped breathing.
Me… Well, I have curves. Generous ones. Also, who wants to undress in front of their employer? There was nothing sexual about it, but that’s beside the point.
I didn’t want to do it. And still, I was already down to my panties and bra.
At least I was wearing clean underwear.
My face felt on fire when I unzipped the dress, slipped it off the mannequin and stepped into it. I sucked in my stomach, expecting it to be tight, and was surprised when it zipped up easily. Well, when I say easily… I did have to play contortionist for a few moments to do the zipper in the back, feeling absolutely ridiculous and all too aware that Miss Delilah was watching. She didn’t offer to help. I didn’t ask.
At last, the dress was zipped. It fit like a dream. Do I betray my overly deep interest in bridal couture if I describe it as a mermaid-style sheath with a sweetheart neckline? The bodice had just enough draping to accentuate my curves without being over the top. Gorgeous, but the satin fabric looked like it might wrinkle just from being looked at too intently. It was just a bit too long for me, or so I thought until Miss Delilah gestured at the floor near the mannequins.
“Put on some shoes. The peep-toe ones, I think.”
I hadn’t noticed the shoes until now. Three pairs, all high-heels, all red—and all to die for.
I slipped on the shiny leather peep-toe pair. They fit just as well as the dress, which surprised me because I knew Miss Delilah’s shoe size was larger than mine.
“Go ahead, take a few steps around,” she said. “Is it too tight to move in? How about the shoes?”
I walked around the room, feeling incredibly self-conscious. I’m not ashamed of my body in any way, but it’s one thing to be confident in my own clothes and quite another to feel at ease in a gown that costs about half what I make in a year. Never mind the price; I’d never worn something that low cut or long enough to brush on the floor with each step; even my prom dress wasn’t that long.
“Hmm.” Miss Delilah tapped a finger over her lips. “I like it, but there’s something off about it. It doesn’t move quite right.”
“Maybe it’s just me,” I said. “I’m not used to wearing gowns like this.”
If she heard me, she didn’t reply, and instead she motioned toward the other dresses. “Let’s see the next one. With the black trimmed shoes this time.”
I dutifully slipped out of the dress, careful not to wrinkle it. The next one—and again you’ll have to forgive the bridal talk because I have no idea how else to describe it—was a ball gown. Think Disney’s Cinderella in a deep ruby red. Layers of tulle, a lace overlay and thin beaded straps. It was beautiful but heavy, and before I even zipped it up Miss Delilah shook her head.
“No, definitely not it. Next.”
I can’t say I was having much fun at that point, but it never occurred to me to protest. Looking back, I guess it should have been a clue that something not entirely natural was going on.
The ball gown went back onto the mannequin form. I turned to the next dress and realized this one was a back-laced corset. How was I going to put that on by myself? Before I could figure it out, Miss Delilah stood, her robe swishing gently around her as she came to me.
“You’ll need to lose the bra for this one,” she said, lifting the dress off the mannequin.
Another perfectly reasonable occasion to say no. I still didn’t.
I turned around until my back was to her and slipped my bra off. It’s not that I’m that much of a prude, but come on, how often do you find yourself topless and wearing nothing more than panties in front of your boss?
After fumbling with it for a second or two, I dropped the bra to the floor and, at her command, lifted my arms. She slipped the gown over my head and tugged it down in place, immediately starting to do the laces in the back while I was still smoothing down the skirt. Made from bright, light chiffon, it fell as an A-line from a dropped waist. The corset was made of a thicker fabric, with a scalloped top and crystals scattered throughout.
“The trick to a corset,” she said on a conversational tone, “is to tighten it until you can’t breathe anymore.”
She demonstrated, and I let out a huff as every last bit of air was squeezed out of my lungs.
“And then,” she continued, “to release just the width of two fingers.”
She did release the laces somewhat, and I didn’t feel anymore like I would die of asphyxia in the next minute. As she finished the lacing, I did feel rather glad that I’d only have to wear the dress for a few minutes. The corset was giving me a cleavage to die for but I do enjoy breathing very much.
“Peep-toe shoes,” she demanded as she stepped back.
I slipped into the shoes and stood there, arms at my side, watching her watch me and thinking that, lack of air notwithstanding, this had to be the most beautiful dress I’d ever worn. And there wasn’t even a mirror in the room for me to look at myself.
Miss Delilah apparently agreed. She nodded once and smiled. “Perfect. All we need is to get your hair up, freshen up your make-up a bit, and we’ll be all set to go.”
I stared at her, confused beyond words. She couldn’t have just said what I thought she had said, right?
As it turned out, she’d known all along which dress she’d wear: the fourth one, a long sheath that hugged her body like a second skin, with a black train hanging in the back. The other three, she’d bought for me. No, not just bought. She’d had them made for me. That was why they, and the shoes, fit so well. How she knew my measurements, I have no idea.
I wasn’t wearing the Cinderella dress, but when she was done with me, I did feel like I’d just met my fairy godmother and was about to go to the ball to meet the prince.
Except that, as far as I can recall, there weren’t vampires in the fairy tale, and the godmother didn’t offer Cinderella to the prince as a midnight snack.
Continued in Ward of the Vampire