The Table of Misfit Donors
Chelsea Price took a deep breath as she pushed through the wide double doors that led into the exquisitely decorated ballroom. Chandeliers hung over the room casting their light gently onto the tables set in ivory, turquoise, and dusty blue. Each table had a centerpiece that, if it had been done in reds and oranges, would look like flames but cooled down in the event colors signified the comfort the Winston Pemberton Burn Center to offer to burn victims and their families. Some of the wealthiest people in the state would be here tonight and it was Chelsea’s job to get her table to understand and sympathize with the cause and then support it.
She saw her table across the room, three people already seated at it and she wondered how the evening would turn out. She had only recognized two names, Olmstead and Copley, from the list of attendees at her table this year, she was undecided about whether she was happy to meet new people for the fundraiser or not. When her gaze fell on the man seated with the Olmstead’s she decided she was glad.
She went over the names she had memorized for her table mates, as the undercover fundraiser for her table it was her job to maximize their donation to the burn center by talking it up and encouraging their interest. She knew the Olmstead’s from previous benefits although she’d never shared a table with them, she knew Louise could be a handful and that her husband was an enthusiastic donor. The other people at her table were all male and she wasn’t sure which one of them had already arrived. She decided that she would change that quickly.
“Hello, I’m Chelsea Price. I guess we’re table-mates tonight.” She smiled as the men at her table rose to welcome her.
Louise looked at her from under her heavy eyelids, painted thickly with blue eyeshadow. Her smile didn’t leave her mouth as she spoke, perhaps her eyes couldn’t smile with all the added weight. “Hello Mrs. Price. I’m Louise Olmstead, you can call me Louise.”
“Nice to meet you Louise, thank you.”
Louise’s husband who was still standing waiting for Chelsea to seat herself smiled broadly. He was tall and thin where Louise was not. “Mrs. Price, I’ve heard so much about you but never had the pleasure of meeting you. The rumors are true, you are a lovely young lady.”
Chelsea’s face warmed at his compliment, Jack Olmstead’s career in finance had been very lucrative and his specialty must have been customer service. “Thank you, Mr Olmstead. I’ve heard a lot about you as well.”
Louise looked at her husband as if he had cavorted with the enemy for a moment. “Chelsea, may I call you that?” She didn’t wait for the affirmative nod. “I heard you recently had your youngest graduate college. It must be a relief to have them all taken care of now.”
Chelsea flexed her back imperceptibly but kept her face still. It would seem Mrs Olmstead wanted the fine specimen of a man standing beside the seat she was about to take to think that she was old enough to be his mother. She brushed it off, she wasn’t here to flirt, she was here to fund raise and with that in mind she turned to him and held out her hand. “I’m Chelsea Price.”
He was still standing next to her, his smile dazzling white as he grinned. He was taller than she was, impressive since she was a willowy 5’8” and towered over most of the men she met. She’d only been an inch shorter than her late husband. “I’m Randy Tyler.”
“Nice to meet you. May I call you Randy?”
“Only if I can call you Chelsea.” His eyes sparkled at her and drew her in as he spoke.
“Then it’s a deal.” She shook his hand and sat in the chair he’d pulled out for her catching Louise’s sharp eye watching her as she did. Sipping at her water she eyed the complimentary wine on the table, how soon was too soon?
“Well hello table-mates!”
The newest arrival was also tall, taller than Randy even, and towered over Jack as he stood next to him. He was smiling and surveying the table with his crystal blue eyes. “Hello. I’m Chelsea Price, please just call me Chelsea.”
“I’m Waylon, Waylon Jackson.”
“And I’m Charles Witt. He’s been trying to hide me ever since high school but I’m too fast for him.” A smiling face darted out from behind the much taller man laughing easily at the difference in their height, which had to be well over a foot.
“I hope you don’t mind but I brought some wine for the table. Theirs is always so bland.” Waylon set two bottles down on the table, pulling out an corkscrew and opening them immediately.
“Oh thank you! Red please.” Louise held her glass out to have it filled.
Waylon smiled at her and filled her glass, offering it to the others when he had finished. Chelsea gratefully watched him fill hers with the white he’d brought, Jack declined with a smile.
“I’ll have a bit of the white please. So what brings everyone here tonight?” Charlie chimed in as he sat down and looked around the table expectantly.
“I believe in giving back.” Jack reached out and offered his hand to him. “Jack Olmstead.”
“Nice to meet you Jack. That’s great. What do you do for work?”
“Nice of you to ask. I’m retired now but I was a finance guy when I worked. I did quite well for myself and now it’s time to give back to the community. Of course it helps my tax man save me some money also.” Chuckling lightly he picked up his water and sipped at it.
“I’m just here for the show. So many people in one place, how could I resist?” Louise looked and sounded like she might collapse with excitement.
Charlie looked at her oddly but kept his smile fresh as he turned to Randy. “And you?”
“I’m a pilot.” Randy’s voice was confident as he sat there, one large hand holding his wine, the other resting in his lap.
Chelsea watched him sip his wine as she shifted her eyes to Charlie, who was expecting her to answer him now. “I’m a graphic designer, and you?”
“Photographer. I own my own studio.”
“Nice. I’m co owner of mine.” She smiled at him with the camaraderie of a small business owner. “What brings you here tonight?” She looked around the table, there were two empty seats. She knew one of them belonged to the eccentric and very wealthy Amadeo Copley, owner of Copley International. She also knew he could be a handful at events like this. She hadn’t been excited when she saw his and Louise’s names both seated at her table. The eighth member was an unknown to her.
“I came because I was invited.” Charlie indicated his friend. “And because he’d said he’d bring good wine to drink with the meal.”
Randy chuckled at his answer. “I’m here to support a good cause. The burn center treated a buddy of mine who got burned pretty badly in an accident last year. Our unit out in Savannah asked me to come but I would’ve anyway. His wife still has a husband because of them.” His voice was solemn.
“I’m here because it’s good for my career, and a good cause. It can’t help to be noticed. How about you, Chelsea?” Waylon smiled and offered more wine to Louise who smiled and accepted it with glee.
“I’m here because I lost my husband in a fire six years ago. I got involved with the burn center to help prevent others from losing their loved ones.”
“Oh, so are you our undercover fundraiser?” Louise’s eyes twinkled as if she’d just found Chelsea’s darkest secret.
Chelsea blanched, to be outed so quickly. “Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you but it’s not me.”
“Undercover?” Randy looked confused.
“Most of the tables here will have an undercover fundraiser, someone designed to talk up the benefit and get us to donate as much as possible.” Chelsea offered him an explanation. “I’ve done it in the past but I wasn’t asked this year.” She smiled softly at Louise’s narrowed eyes and shrugged her shoulders.
“Am I late?”
Chelsea shifted her gaze from Louise to the man who’d just arrived. He was definitely not Amadeo Copley and for that she breathed a sigh of relief. She had a feeling that Louise was going to give her a run for her money tonight, quite literally. “Hello, Mr…” She searched her memory for the final name and couldn’t come up with it.
“Jackson.” He said it proudly. “Samuel Jackson, although I’m not as famous as the other Samuel Jackson.” He laughed loudly at his own joke. He was an average height and had a head full of white hair cut in a military style that dated back to the fifties. He wore glasses with thick lenses and she thought she might see the tell tale edge of a hearing aid, which explained why he spoke so loudly.
“Hello Mr Jackson.” She reached over and shook his offered hand. “I’m Chelsea Price.” She sat back as the others introduced themselves and considered her table. Jack and Louise seemed straightforward enough, she was sure Jack would be an excellent donor tonight even if Louise didn’t seem to care one bit about the benefit. Waylon seemed to be here for his own reasons but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t donate and donate well and the same went for his friend Charlie.
Chelsea watched them for a moment. They’d arrived together but that didn’t mean anything. They did seem close though. She decided she didn’t care either way, it was Randy she was interested in knowing more about. She wondered how much he’d be able to give. He’d said he was a pilot in the military. Her job, whether she wanted it or not, was to get her table to donate a total of fifty thousand dollars. She was prepared with her donation of ten but that left forty out there to be had. She crossed her fingers and sipped her wine. As long as Mr Copley didn’t show she could do this, and if he did show, she could still do it, maybe he’d just donate the whole sum if he showed.
“Well, I served in Vietnam.” Samuel was talking, so loudly that the next table could probably hear him.
“I see, thank you for your service.” Chelsea realized Randy was trying to make small talk with the older veteran but finding it hard.
“It weren’t nothing. I was drafted, didn’t like it at first but you get used to being wet and tired all the time. Soldiers these days, they don’t know how good they have it.”
Randy cleared his throat. “Times have changed Mr Jackson. Waylon, what kind of law do you practice?”
Chelsea thanked him silently for the subject change, wondering if it would be inappropriate to kiss the handsome pilot sitting next to her.
Waylon also noted the distraction and jumped in. “Contract law. It’s very boring really but it pays the bills.”
“I’m sure it does, young man.” Louise piped up. “When I was your age we were just happy to have a job.”
“Thank you Ma’am. I am very happy to have a job and my best friend at my side.” He clapped Charlie on the shoulder. “A man can’t ask for more than that.”
Charlie smiled at him and shook his head as he winked at Louise.
Louise caught the wink and her eyes went wide as she considered the possibility that he was either flirting with her or was Waylon’s partner. Chelsea could see her mind working as she tried to figure it out.
“It’s true.” Randy spoke up. “Having a job means a lot these days. Having a job where you feel like you really make a difference means so much more. What do you in your work, Chelsea?” His hazel eyes caught her and held her in their gaze.
She was taken aback for a moment. Her heart fluttering in her chest, sending butterflies to her stomach. She felt like a school girl which was ridiculous because it had been a long time since she’d been a schoolgirl. “My company works with small businesses for the most part, doing advertising and some design for them. We recently branched out to include web design as well.”
“I see.” He smiled at her in a way that suggested he wasn’t as interested in her work as he was in her and it made her flush a bit.
“What sort of airplane do you pilot?” She tried to turn the attention back on him with her question.
“Actually, I pilot helicopters, Blackhawk’s, specifically.”
“Now that’s interesting, it is.” Samuel spoke up from her other side. “We had Huey’s in Nam, used to call them whirlybirds, we did.” He guffawed at his words.
Randy smiled politely at his joke. “I’ve heard that before. The Army’s changed a lot since Vietnam.”
“Course, I wasn’t Army, I’m a Marine.” Samuel said this proudly and at the top of his lungs, so loudly in in fact that two nearby tables stopped talking and looked at him, Chelsea cringed.
“That’s wonderful, Mr Jackson.” She hoped he might settle down.
“Well, now it’s getting interesting.” Louise looked at the new arrivals at the next table over as if they were fresh meat in a market. “I didn’t know she’d be attending with her husband.”
“Louise, you promised me no gossip tonight.” Jack rested his hand on hers.
“And I won’t gossip, I promise, but surely there’s no harm in introducing our table-mates to our neighbors, is there?”
Jack sighed and rolled his eyes, clearly acquiescing to his wifes ways. Chelsea wished the opening presentation would begin soon.
“You said you co-owned your business? Who’s your lucky partner?” Randy’s sharp eyes caught her in their gaze again, and again the butterflies let loose. His hand rested on the table, dangerously close to hers.
“My brother-in-law.” She sounded like an idiot and she didn’t know what it was about this man that unnerved her so.
“I see, your late husbands…”
“Yes, but he and I were in business together long before he died. He’s amazing at business and when he needed a graphic designer he talked me into working for him.”
“Well then, you’re very lucky.”
“Am I?” She tilted her head at him. She was here because she’d lost her husband in a fire, she wasn’t sure that made her lucky.
“Lucky to own your own business, that’s what I meant.” He smiled at her, the warmth of his smile easing her discomfort.
“Ladies and Gentleman.” The emcee’s voice boomed out of the microphone and caught everyones attention.
“I remember what it was like, hiding in the jungle listening for charlies.” Everyone’s attentions except Samuel’s that is.
“Shh, Mr Jackson, they’re starting.” Chelsea tapped his hand and pointed at the stage.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” The room had hushed now and his words carried over several tables. Several tables around them looked over disapprovingly, Chelsea shrugged it off.
“We are so very glad to welcome you tonight and spend this evening with you. As you know this fund raiser is the work of Susan Pemberton, daughter of Winston, whom the burn center is named after, not only because of his generous donation to get it started but also in memory of the tragedy that took his life. Maybe if we’d opened it just a few years sooner he’d be here with us tonight as well.” The emcee shook his head sadly, giving a moment of silence to the memory of Winston.
“So without further ado let me hand the mic over to the woman who made all this possible.
Chelsea let her mind drift as Susan Pemberton took the stage and began talking about the burn center. There were still people filtering in the wide double doors and for a brief moment she thought she glimpsed Amadeo Copley’s unmistakable spiky blond head breathing a sigh of relief when she saw it wasn’t. Susan Pemberton’s voice intruded on her thoughts. She was a beautiful woman, maybe in her thirties, her platinum hair cascaded in curls over her shoulders as she navigated the stage, microphone in hand.
“I want to thank all of you for coming tonight. You’ve supported the burn center just by being here and that’s amazing. Each table has an additional donation goal this evening, they’re all random and no one knows them other than your undercover fundraiser, if you have one. So while we show you how the burn center works, helps and contributes to your community will you please consider whether or not you can donate just a bit more? Thank you so much for coming tonight.” She set the mic down on the lectern, walking behind the abundance of flowers that lined the stage to the stairs.
“Well, she’s certainly gotten some surgery.” Louise sniffed as she sipped at her wine.
“Louise, you promised.” Jack shot an annoyed look at his wife.
“I’ll be good.” She quieted as a waiter slid behind her chair leaving a salad at each setting.
“I love salad!” Jack proclaimed as he picked up a fork and dug in. “Didn’t use to, mind ya.” He tucked a stray bit of lettuce back into his mouth and stopped to swallow. “I learned to like it when I had my first heart attack. Joanie, that’s my late wife, she made me eat healthy.”
Chelsea worried that Jack might be disturbing the tables around them.
“You know, you don’t have to yell. We can all hear just fine.” Louise’s gravely voice was almost as loud as his and much more grating.
Samuel looked at her over the centerpiece as if he was just noticing her. Time seemed to stand still as Chelsea waited to see what would happen. Louise stared back at him, challenging him to talk back. Jack’s hand moved to rest on her arm. “Louise, he’s a veteran, be respectful, please.”
Louise snatched her arm away from her husband’s grip and snorted. “I’m sorry, Mr Jackson, but if you could possibly keep your voice down just a bit there are other tables near us.”
“Mr Jackson, is there anything I can do to help you?” Chelsea hoped she could save this evening from disaster before it even began.
“No, not at all.” His gaze slid from Louise to her. “I’m sorry if I get loud. The artillery did a number on my hearing and I don’t always know how loud I’m speaking.”
“It’s fine. If you talk like that we can all hear you just fine.”
Samuel nodded his head and filled his mouth with another forkful of salad, winking at Chelsea over his plate.
Louise huffed and picked at her salad, clearly upset that her concerns were being ignored.
“Mrs Olmstead, I know it’s embarrasing when Mr Jackson, um, Samuel, speaks loudly, but I don’t think he means to.” Waylon offered his hand to calming her down.
“She’s right you know.” It was clear that Samuel was trying to modulate his voice to keep from speaking loudly.
“Well, try harder!”
“Louise!” Jack’s short but quiet exclamation got her attention.
“Louise, I’m sorry, but we need to respect the service he offered and his disability.” Chelsea crossed her fingers and sipped her wine hoping Jack could settle his wife down.
“I’m sorry. I’ll try.” Louise dropped her gaze to the table remorsefully, but Chelsea was certain she’d seen a gleam in her eye as she did.
Chelsea breathed easy for a moment. The dinner course had been served and they were just finishing it up. Louise had been distracted by eating for most of it. Now David Johnston, the director of the burn center, was showing them a brief video highlighting the equipment the center had been able to purchase because of last years donations and the equipment they were hoping to purchase this year. She sighed as she noticed Samuel squinting at the screen and again when he turned back to the table.
His voice was at least quiet as he spoke. “You know, we didn’t have nothing like this when we were in “Nam.”
Chelsea nodded politely as she felt Randy shift beside her, letting his leg brush up against hers, electricity shot through her at the contact and she tried to brush it off. He had to be at least 15 years younger than her.
“We once set the jungle on fire, that was terrible, it was. Them commies came running out like rats off a sinking ship.”
“Mr Jackson!” Louise had had it.
“Mr Jackson, I think what Louise means to say is that we want to know how we can help the burn center. We’d all love to hear your stories, but we can’t pay attention to both.”
“Actually, what I meant to say is that I don’t want to hear his war stories!” Louise's voice was just slightly louder than it needed to be.
“Louise!” Jack’s hushed exclamation quieted her once again.
Chelsea smiled gently at Samuel’s hurt look, but Randy spoke quietly before she could. He leaned in front of her slightly allowing the scent of him to wash over her and make her a little dizzy. “Samuel, not everyone can handle war stories. I, for one, would love to hear a few of them after the event. We can have a beer in the bar while you tell me a few.” He smiled broadly at Samuel who seemed appeased by the offer and scowled quietly at Louise.
Why, oh why, did her table have to be so difficult?
Randy stopped his retreat from her personal space with his mouth very close to her ear and whispered, “I’d prefer to have a glass of wine with you, if you can wait it out.”
She was sure she was blushing bright red at his words, but they held a certain appeal. She hadn’t even dated since her husband had died. She was thankful the lights were dimmed. She let her eye catch Randy’s as he continued his retreat and nodded her head gently. She wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to spend time with him.
First though, she had to be sure their table made the 50K goal. She sipped her wine and held her almost empty glass up to the offered bottle as Charles refilled everyone’s glasses.
The lights came up as he did.
“Thank you,” Mr Johnston surveyed the crowd. “Please take your time, discuss the center and enjoy your dinners. And most certainly make sure you have a pen to write that check out so we can make a difference!”
“Well, he’s certainly begging, isn’t he?” Louise looked hurt and hungry still. She eyed Chelsea’s almost untouched plate. “Do you not like your dinner, Chelsea?”
Chelsea looked at her plate and realized she hadn’t taken more than two bites of the delicious lobster ravioli’s. “I love it, but I was paying attention to the presentation.” She smiled at the hidden barb she’d delivered and chastised herself for it at the same time. Randy’s knee tapped hers in solidarity and she felt vindicated somehow.
“Waylon loves lobster, don’t you?” Charles smiled broadly at his friend.
“Exactly, that’s why I ordered the chicken.” Waylon smiled back and winked again, Chelsea wasn’t sure if he’d winked at Charles or Louise. Apparently Louise wasn’t either as she eyed him warily. “I’m allergic to shellfish.” He explained to the others at the table.
“And I tease him mercilessly about it.” Charles grinned and brushed his shoulder against Waylon’s. “He’s so good natured about it.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Waylon laughed and dipped his head.
Louise eyed them suspiciously and for a brief moment Chelsea thought she might call them out, but she glanced at the steely look her husband was giving her, exhaled quietly and sipped her wine quietly.
Chelsea breathed a sigh of relief and felt Randy’s knee brush hers, or maybe that was his hand this time? Her relief was short lived.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but are you two…” Samuels question was interrupted by the microphone feedback as the emcee took the stage again and the servers began clearing the tables of their dinner plates.
“Mr Jackson!” Louise cut him off before he could begin again.
He looked at her squinting through his thick lenses that Chelsea was sure had been slated for the Hubble Space telescope before being given to him. “I was just wondering if one of them were our undercover fundraiser.” He swallowed the last of his wine as the server took his plate. “I have a big check to write and I want to know who to give it to.”
Chelsea’s ears perked up at his words. “We aren’t supposed to try and guess that Samuel.” She smiled slyly at him.
“Besides, we all know it’s Chelsea.” Louise interjected.
“Is that true?” Randy’s smile dazzled her with its brightness.
“Of course it’s not.” She was losing her patience with Louise and she hoped it didn’t show. “None of us know who it is and our table might not even have one.”
“I was hoping you were a spy.” He leaned in close, invading her space with the scent of his cologne again. “You’re pretty enough to be a spy.”
Now she knew everyone could see her blush. Louise watched her carefully across the table as she struggled to get a hold of herself and her dignity. “Well, of course I’d like to know if we have an undercover fundraiser as much as you, but we don’t know. I do know that it’s not me.” She hoped she sounded convincing.
“There Louise, now let it rest.” Jack patted his wifes plump hand and smiled at her. “We’ll go to that restaurant you love so much for lunch tomorrow.”
Louise smiled at her husband and then at Chelsea, nodding her head and saying something under her breath to him.
Chelsea saw the servers making their way around the room with dessert and excused herself for a trip to the ladys room.
“I’ll join you.” Louise stood and gathered her purse, blithely ignoring the warning look from her husband.
“Of course.” Chelsea wondered what god she had angered to be saddled with Louise Olmstead tonight and followed her to the ladies room where they joined the line and waited for a chance to use it.
“Well, that young pilot seems to have his eye on you.” Louise bared her teeth in a smile that Chelsea thought looked more predatory than intimate.
“I’m sure he’s just being a gentleman.”
“I certainly hope so! He can’t be much older than your oldest, can he?”
Chelsea gripped her purse and resolved not to explode in rage. “My oldest is only 24, Louise. I doubt anyone could be a pilot by that age.”
“Well, I’ll find out for you so you don’t embarrass yourself.” She nodded her head sagely.
Chelsea watched her disappear into a stall and fumed to herself. If she wanted to flirt with Randy what law said she couldn’t? He was clearly interested.
“I’m sorry.” A strange woman spoke quietly from behind her.
Chelsea turned to see petite blond woman grinning at her. “Excuse me?”
“I was so thankful she wasn’t at my table this year.” The woman smiled conspiratorially at her. “I’m sorry she’s giving you a hard time.”
“Thank you.” They exchanged a knowing smile and Chelsea felt better for being absolved of her hatred for the woman as Louise exited the stall. She entered it, vaguely aware of Louise greeting her new sister in arms.
Dessert had been served as they returned to the table and the emcee was calling Susan Pemberton back to the podium. She took the mic with ease and graced the room her best smile.
“Thank you all for coming out tonight. I hope you’ve had a great evening!” She swept her gaze through the room. “Enjoy your dessert and spend the next few minutes thinking about what you can give to us. Thank you all and have a good night.”
The servers left one final item on each table, a basket for their checks.
Chelsea pulled her purse up and slid her sealed envelope into it, glancing around the table to see what the others would do. She crossed her fingers that they would contribute heavily, her reputation as an undercover fundraiser depended on it, even if she had been given a table of misfits to oversee this evening.