Disgusted with the whole rigmarole, Vanessa abandoned her closet and walked out to the mailbox. The usual deluge of bills, catalogs, and junk mail spilled into her hands. She had just flipped past the electric bill when she caught sight of a thick, creamy envelope. She tore it open and found that it was an invitation to her cousin Fran's wedding. Vanessa didn't particularly like Fran. She was the kind of woman who derived great pleasure from telling people that her boyfriend (now fiancé) Ned was a corporate lawyer, and she had a habit of fixing Vanessa with faux sympathetic eyes upon hearing that she herself had not yet found "someone special." But Vanessa did like the Princess's Palace, which was the venue of Fran's reception. Although Vanessa had heard many people rave about the Palace's pink marble walls, rainbow fountains, and shrimp and soufflé-laden buffets, she'd never had the chance to experience its opulence firsthand. Vanessa didn't have a date. But she could more than make up for her lack of escort with a to-die-for dress from the back of her closet.
* * * *
Vanessa stood uncertainly in front of the full-length mirror in the ladies' room of the Princess's Palace. Lush green ferns unfurled behind her, and the heady scent of Chanel No. 5 filled the air. She was wearing her black strapless cocktail dress, the bodice of which glittered with a galaxy of colorful moon- and star-shaped rhinestones. She'd set it off with a silver clutch and edgy silver stilettos, and a large rhinestone star-shaped clip winked in her hair. She loved the dress, which she'd found in an obscure boutique, and had been waiting for a chance to wear it for more than a year. Looking at it now gave her just the jolt of confidence she needed to face the singles table. With a pat of her hair and a last backward glance, Vanessa turned on her (admittedly painful) heel and sailed back into the sea of revelers.
She scanned the tables for her number, which, as luck would have it, was 13. She found it wedged into a corner and occupied by a half moon of fellow unfortunates. Then a familiar face pulled up a chair. It was Paul, her mother's accountant. Vanessa didn't quite have a crush on Paul. Women Vanessa's age didn't get crushes, and anyway, Paul didn't give her butterflies or inspire her to drop by his office unannounced. He was merely one of those seemingly kind guys just this side of boring who may or may not have been hiding a wicked sense of humor behind his glasses. Now was Vanessa's chance to find out.
"Fancy meeting you here," she said. "Friend of the bride's or groom's?"
Paul's face registered faint surprise. "Groom's. Ned's a family friend."
"Oh." Vanessa smiled. "Fran is my cousin."
Vanessa cringed inwardly at the trajectory of the conversation. But she willed herself to see the thing through. After all, she'd been the one to kick things off with "Fancy meeting you here." If that opener didn't tip the cheese-o-meter, then she didn't know what did.
"Nice dress," Paul said, looking a little too pointedly at her cleavage. Let it slide, cautioned Vanessa's inner censor, after all, isn't that sort of the point?
"Thanks. I got it awhile back but never had the chance to wear it. Tonight seemed perfect."
"Well, you've always got something nice on." Paul paused to take a swig of his Guinness. "Do you have lots of dresses that you've never worn?"
"Oh, not that many," Vanessa hedged.
"Because you've got to be careful," said Paul, emboldened by his drink. "In my line of work I've seen it all. Women who can't make their car payments because they splurged on a pair of Manolos, skimping on their 401Ks to squeeze a shopping spree out of every paycheck. It's hard to believe that some people don't want to invest in their future. "
"Indeed," she muttered, choosing to focus on the tablecloth, which featured a lovely pattern of tiaras and scepters, instead of on her lack of rainy day funds.
Paul seemed to take her terse reply as encouragement. "You should've seen the way my ex-wife blew through money! But I showed her. Now that she's on her own, she buys clothes only when her old ones fall apart. Too many dresses, Maria!, I'd tell her. If you hadn't bought too many dresses, then maybe you wouldn't have had to sell that kidney." By now his mild eyes were bulging, and his face was the hue of a radish.
"Sounds like a riot," Vanessa murmured, rising from her seat. "Will you excuse me for a moment? I need to visit the ladies' room."
Without waiting for an answer, she walked past the scrumptious and still unsampled buffet tables. She was halfway to the coat check when she was stopped by a stranger.
"Great dress," he said, smiling. His eyes were hypnotic and laughing and seemed to drain her head of its doubts.
"It cost $500.00," Vanessa blurted out, "and I haven't even paid it off yet!"
The stranger laughed. "Yeah? Well, it was worth every penny." Then he held out his hand as "Moon River" swelled in the background.
Now, Vanessa was no ingénue. She knew that this guy was probably a player. But compared to preachy, penny-pinching Paul, this player had panache. And in Vanessa's (check)book, that made him a prince.
"Thanks, big spender," she winked, and allowed herself to be led back into the ballroom.