A procession of sophisticatedly dressed elitists are ushered into the skylighted entryway of my home. I pass the cherry-wood centre table and the assortment of French mahogany to welcome them in as they arrive. I hand out charismatic smiles with home-trained charm, sharing grins and pleasantries before I escort them to the dining room. A myriad of appetisers await them, with other guests conversing politely, holding flutes of gold champagne.
The sparkling chandelier sets everything below aglow, sending glimmers across exotic gowns and suits. The dining table is adorned with a Celtic runner, and metal tiered stands line the spine that are arranged with entrees.
A balding man approaches me, and the buttons of his suit jacket are clutching on for life.
“Peterson,” I greet gleefully. “How are you?”
Judge Peterson, from the supreme courts and dad’s dearest friend. My dad has a lot of powerful political allies, even fostering foreign relations, all to increase his sphere of influence. And that has worked out greatly for him.
“I’m well.” His gaze strays to a waiter, weaving past us, balancing a tray of delectables. “I must say, your speech at Matthew’s inauguration was poignant. He must be so proud of you—all three of you.”
I nod, smiling gratefully. “I hope so.”
“Where is Mayor Matthew? I haven’t seen him yet.”
I give the room a quick scan. “Then he’s still at his bureau with my brothers. I’m sure he will be here soon. And if you will excuse me, I have to make my rounds.”
I lay a gentle hand on his shoulder before I pass. I indulge a conversation with the governor and his surly faced wife, who eyes down everyone with a critical stare; a lordy gaze of judgment. I move through the room seamlessly, making everyone feel acknowledged until my father eventually presents himself, so the first course can be served. An angsty server catches my attention, she fidgets on the spot, looking wildly uncomfortable.
I make a tentative approach. “Are you okay?”
“Miss Carson.” She snaps straight, looking forward. “Yes, ma’am. I am.”
“My name is Angela,” I correct carefully. “And since you’re shaking like a chihuahua, I don’t think you are.”
Her face falls like she’s been found guilty of a crime. “Well… I just really need to use the bathroom. But I can hold it.”
I give her a dumbstruck look. “Third door to your left. If you need the bathroom, you don’t need permission, you can just go. And you and the rest of the staff have worked hard with the set up and everything. When you’re done, go have a bite in the kitchen, tell the others to take turns. I want you all to be fed and hydrated so make sure you each switch out for the other.”
Her jaw loosens, gaping at me with surprise. “Wow, thank you, ma’am—Angela. I’ll make sure everyone knows.”
“Go before your bladder bursts.”
She smiles sheepishly and scurries away. Suddenly an invisible weight deposits itself on me like someone is watching me, very intensely. The powerful pull of his malachite-green eyes draws my gaze to him for a heartbeat. He vanishes from my sight and I swivel around, searching for even a glimpse. A cluster of suited men stride inside—Europeans, the foreign relations I mentioned before. Foreign dignitaries my father became acquainted with and to be honest. I wasn’t sure they would show.
I refocus on the task at hand, spotting a lonesome, lofty-eyed individual.
I ease up to the municipal commissioner, infusing sincerity into my smile. “Commissioner, I’m so glad you could make it. We were told that you were unavailable?”
He chucks a cursory glance at me. “My former plans were cancelled at the last minute. So I thought I would muse this caricature of a celebration, for my own amusement.”
I swallow a retort. “It seems you don’t approve of the current administration?”
He scoffs bitterly. “That’s putting it mildly.”
“Well perhaps, he might change your mind? Given time.”
“Why, because he’s your father?”
“Because he is a good man.” I maintain my smile with much effort. “And there are so few in stock,” I add. “I say what I say because I have seen the hours, blood and sweat he poured into his work. It’s not a job for him but his passion. A way for him to affect real change, more actions than words. And his has already spoken for him.”
He finally looks me in the eye, wearing a condescending smile. “Your ignorance is almost refreshing.”
Before I can even think of something, a crash of glass yanks my gaze to the archway. Emma stands with her hands raised, her plain white dress stained with a blotch of red—scattered fragments at her feet, with a server who looks like she’s on the brink of tears. She holds the stem of the broken glass and tucks the black tray beneath her armpit.
“Ma’am, I am so sorry,” she says, apologising profusely. “It’s my fault, I should’ve been looking—”
“Apparently too foolish to even do that,” the governor’s wife exclaims. “Goodness gracious, why is it so difficult to find good help?”
“Mrs Sterling,” I say, my voice rich with reproach. “It was an accident.” I look at the teary-eyed server. “Do you mind cleaning this up for me, please?”
She nods eagerly, almost breaking her neck. "Of course."
“And you.” I couple my arm with Emma’s. “I have something else you can change into.”
Emma allows me to guide her as we make our way to the single, swivel staircase.
“Where were you? I thought you weren’t going to show.”
She chaffs at my melodrama. “Closed the shop late, was holding something for a client.”
“Who needs flowers at this time?”
“Clearly someone who screwed up,” she answers with a laugh. “But it was dendrobium, so I’m guessing all is forgiven.”
I look back at her quizzically.
“An expensive type of orchid, definitely worth the delay. At least for me.”
We scale up the ochre-coloured steps.
“Did I miss anything?” She then interjects before I can even let out a breath. “Oh wait, I already know the answer.”
“Oh, come on, it’s not that bad.”
“No?” She perks up with fleeting interest. “Though I was surprised to see the commissioner here. He hates uncle Matt.”
“Nooo,” I drag out. “Hate is a strong word.”
“That’s why I chose it.”
I elbow her playfully. We make it to my bedroom and she goes ahead to open my door, then she meanders to the left to help herself to my wardrobe. I go to the standing mirror in the corner by the window to check my face and makeup. Everything is in place. My long, balayage tresses are tied in a low ponytail, gelled to strandless perfection. My fingers nip at the skirt of the ruched, open back bodycon dress, pulling it down a bit. A beautiful beige that reaches my ankles, accessorized with light, gold jewellery.
I glance back to see her attired in my draped midi slip dress with a high slit. The burgundy colour flatters her bronzed skin, brown like a windfall autumn leaf. Yards of curly black locks tumble past her shoulders. An absolute stunner.
“Breath-taking,” I correct.
She rolls her eyes; she fixes her hair up, letting an idle lock on each side frame her face.
I give myself one last check in the mirror—my gaze flies out of the window.
“So, is there anyone in attendance worth mentioning?” Emma asks. “Or is it the usual?”
My eyes narrow at the shadowy figures arguing on the outdoor deck. I obviously can’t hear what they are saying but by the angry gesticulations, it’s nothing good. I come closer to the window, hiding most of my body behind the thick curtain. It’s my father. But I can’t see who he’s talking to.
The mystery man walks away abruptly, then stops to say something more. He’s right under the porch light. It makes no difference to me because I don’t know who he is, and I know every name and face of the people attending this dinner party. Except for him. At least now I know what’s been keeping my dad busy.
The door bursts open—I jolt, spinning around.
Lucas enters my room with Daniel in tow. Both of them twinning in black and white tuxedos.
“Why aren’t you downstairs?” Lucas questions. “We’re even starting to run out of appetisers.”
I gesture to Emma. “I was lending her a dress, hers got spilled on by accident.”
His gaze zips to her, his frustration forgotten as he goes to greet her with a hug, then so does Daniel.
“Where’s dad?” I ask, testing them.
They both shrug.
“He said he had to go over some things with you?” Daniel answers.
I mask my discontent with a smile. Because that was the same lie he fed me with about them.
“Well,” Emma begins, looking at me. “I’m ready, so we can go down if you want?”
“Ready?” Lucas’s eyes take her in exaggeratedly. “Try remarkable.”
“Oh, Lucas.” She hits his bicep lightly. “Continue.”
He laughs and offers his arm to her as they walk out. I sneak a glance behind me. Why would my dad lie about what he was really doing? And what is the clandestine confrontation about that he was so adamant to hide? Clearly my dad didn’t invite him, but he was let in because security didn’t stop him and hasn't thrown him out by now.
I look back at Daniel, wide-eyed. He lingers in the doorway, waiting for me.
I pamper on a smile. “Yep.”