The Wager

By: Calista Kyle

Chapter One: Lily



I really hate my friends sometimes. That was what was going through my head as Melanie stood there trying to convince me to go to this charity gala with her.

"You know I hate all that stuff, Mel," I said.

"Pfft," she snorted, waving her hand in front of me in dismissal. "You've never even been to one, so how would you know?"

"I've never had a root canal either, and I'm sure I wouldn't like it one bit," I shot back.

"Oh come on," she pleaded, changing tactics. "Brian was supposed to go with me and you know how that turned out, what with him jetting off to Thailand and leaving me in the dust. I don't want to go alone. Besides, it might be fun!"

She looked at me with her big brown puppy dog eyes and I felt a little bit of my resolve crumbling. I hated when she looked at me like that. Deep down I was a big softie, and Mel used it to her advantage whenever she thought she could get away with it.

Still, I hesitated. These fancy functions weren't my cup of tea. She was right in that I had never gone to one before, but that didn't mean I didn't know what to expect. It'd probably be full of uptight snobs and shallow people, who went only for the publicity and free booze.

Mel's mother has been in charge of overseeing the event ever since she took over as editor of Chère Magazine 20 years ago. While it was always one of the biggest social events of the season, this was actually the first year that Mel's mother had invited her to go. Mel had been talking about it for the past few months.

I knew it meant a lot to her, and honestly, she'd probably need some moral support to face down her dragon of a mother. But that didn't mean I was ready to volunteer myself for the task. I knew I wouldn't fit in and would probably stand out like a sore thumb. Parties and hobnobbing with the rich and famous just didn't appeal to me at all.

"Are you even sure your mother would even want me to come? Last I checked, she couldn't even stand the sight of me," I said.

"The invitation says I could bring a guest, so she really can't do anything about who I invite. Besides, she never said she didn't like you."

"Yeah, just her cold glares or her mentioning my bad influence on you, as if being fat were contagious, really pointed to her affection for me," I scoffed.

Mel had the grace to blush in embarrassment, but still she tried to defend her mother. "Oh come on, she glares at everyone. You should see the looks she gives to me. And besides, you're not even fat. There are women who'd pay thousands of dollars for the figure you've got. I don't know why you're always so down about yourself. You know my mother has this warped sense of beauty. I mean look at her job," she said.

"But I still have nothing to wear. I doubt I could get away with wearing an off the rack dress from J. Crew or whatever else is in my closet. I don't have anything fancy enough to attend this gala."

That much was true, and I'd hoped she'd finally drop it and find someone else to go with, but she was undeterred.

"Don't worry about that," she said. "I'll take care of your dress and all the accessories and hair and makeup. You just have to worry about getting your butt out the door."

I sighed in defeat. Mel could be as stubborn and determined as a mule when she really wanted something, and she had set her sights on me going to the gala with her. There'd be no point in arguing because I knew she'd just keep chipping away at my resistance until I finally agreed to go.

"All right," I said. "But this is the first, last, and only time I'm going to go to one of these events with you."

Mel's face transformed into delight and she squealed as she grabbed my hands.

"Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" she said before giving me a hug. "I'll owe you one, and I'll never ask you to go to one of these things with me again."

"Yeah, I'll remember that for next time," I said doubtfully.

Once Mel left, I stood alone at the counter of my bookstore. Already I was regretting my decision. I hadn't gone out to a party or even a date for over six months, ever since I broke up with my ex, Michael. I thought longingly of the plans I had had this weekend--sitting at home with a nice hot cup of tea, curling up with a good book and my cat Misty at my side. Instead, I had to play dress up and plaster on a fake smile for a whole night.

Most people my age would probably jump at the chance to attend the Eichendorf Gala, not pine away for another evening of solitude. After all, the guest list was made up of the movers and shakers of the world with attendees including celebrities, politicians, models, billionaires, and even royalty. And yet here I was, a lowly bookstore owner, and I happened to have a ticket to the hottest event in town.

A wry smile crossed my face at the thought. If only the folks back home in my Podunk town in Maine heard about this, they would never believe it. Poor, ugly Lily Hayward really moved up in the world, they'd probably say.

I frowned at the direction my thoughts were headed. After graduating high school eight years ago, I vowed to never ever look back. There were just too many bad memories. I hadn't even gone back home to visit since I left for college, even though I missed my parents.

"Hey Lily, you all right?"

I jerked my head up at the unexpected interruption. "Oh Doris! I didn't even notice you come in," I said.

"I'll say. You were off in la la land for a minute there."

"How long have you been standing there?" I felt a flush of heat creep up my face at being caught.

"Not long. Maybe a couple of minutes. What's wrong?" she asked, concern etching across her face.

"Oh nothing," I said. "I've just got a lot on my mind right now. Do you think you can cover for me this weekend during the day? I know I scheduled you to close too, but something came up and I've got to go out this weekend."

"Yeah sure," she said. "You know me, I could use all the extra hours I can get."

I smiled gratefully at Doris. She'd been working at the bookstore for fifteen years. She was actually the one who trained me when I had started working here six years ago to help pay for college. Our old boss Mr. Mosley had decided to sell the place right after my grandmother died. She'd left me with a nice chunk of money and it seemed like the perfect timing to buy the bookstore.

Doris had been worried about keeping her job at first, but I knew there was no way I was letting her go. On top of being an honest and hardworking employee, I knew she needed the paycheck. At 60 years of age, it wasn't exactly easy for her to find another job, and I knew she had a lot on her plate with raising her grandchildren after their mother ran out on them.

"Thanks," I said.

"So what you got planned for this weekend?" she asked. "I don't think you've ever taken a personal day since I've known you."

"I got invited to the Eichendorf Gala," I said.

Doris paused in the act of stuffing her purse under the counter, and turned to look at me with wide eyes. "Did you say the Eichendorf Gala?" she asked. "The one that's in all the papers?"

"Yup, that's the one. My friend Mel asked me to go and she wouldn't take no for an answer," I said, shrugging my shoulders. I didn't know why I felt the need to try to explain myself, as if I wanted Doris to know I was going against my will.

"Wow! I'm so happy for you. You deserve a nice night out," she said, patting my arm in a kind motherly way.

"Uhh yeah, thanks."

"Maybe you'll meet a nice man there, and get swept away," she said dreamily.

I rolled my eyes at her and laughed. "Really Doris, you've got to stop reading those romance novels. There's probably a less than zero percent chance I'll meet a decent guy at this gala. I'm just hoping I don't make a fool of myself."

"Hey, you never know. A beautiful girl like you is sure to draw the attention of some lonely bachelor, preferably rich and handsome too!"

I snorted at Doris' fantasy. She was always an optimist and romantic at heart, but I knew better. There'd be no prince charming or white knight at this gala. Men just couldn't be trusted. I'd learned that the hard way. Sure, not all men were like that, but the ones I'd come across in my life definitely fit the bill. Every time I gave in and opened myself up just a little, I'd always gotten burned, so now I didn't even bother. I'd learned my lesson and had the scars to prove it.





***

This couldn't be happening to me. I stared at the mirror in dismay. My face decided to have a mutiny and break out into pimples on the day I was supposed to go to the gala.

Shit.

On top of all that, I'd somehow managed to get an eye infection, and couldn't wear my contacts. I'd have to wear my thick prescription glasses this evening. It was just freaking perfect. As if I didn't already feel out of place enough, I had to look like a total dork on top of it all.

I was tempted to call Mel and tell her I couldn't go. I even went so far as to pick up the phone and dial her number, but when she answered, she sounded so excited and nervous, I didn't have the heart to back out. Mel had rented a suite at the Lexington Hotel for us to use for our preparations. It was a convenient location since it was only half a block from the gala so we wouldn't have to worry about fighting traffic to get there.

The suite was a bustle of activity when I first arrived. Mel had really gone above and beyond when she said she'd take care of everything. There were racks of dresses placed to one side of the room and hair and makeup people running all around. In the middle of it all was Mel. She was sitting in a chair in front of a vanity mirror deep in thought.

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