Happy with the Millionaire
Hermione Youngson stood back and allowed her eyes to roam over the guests seated in the dining area of her events business and then drew her attention back to the woman at the microphone, dressed as an ice princess. It was not a usual Halloween costume, but each to their own, Hermione thought.
"Good evening, everyone. My name is Felicity Oberon and most of you will know that I am the Chief Operating Officer for YarLox IT Australia. On behalf of Zach Yarborough, I thank you all for being here tonight and I particularly want to salute our visitors from Singapore. Welcome! Zach and I thought this would be a great way to say thank you to everybody for the work you've put in over the last month getting the new suite of programs operational in time for our visitors. It's not intended as our end of year function, we'll do that in December. Tonight, Zach and I would just like you to relax and enjoy yourselves and pop over to our table to say hello. For now, I'll introduce you to Hermione Youngson who will fill you in on the program for the evening."
The tall, beautifully presented blonde with the very proper English accent resumed her place at the top table making room for Hermione at the microphone. Hermione, shortened to Hap by her friends and family, had a momentary crisis of confidence as she reached up to re-position the microphone much lower to accommodate her smaller stature. Nevertheless, her voice was confident as she smiled out at the crowd who had just completed the first two courses of their meal.
"Hello!" She exaggerated her smile and brightened her eyes. "Is everybody happy?"
She waited for a beat and got mumbled confirmation.
"Oh!" She allowed her face to fall. "You're not?" She looked worried.
An empathetic soul called out, "Yes we are happy!" and, as the chorus was taken up by others around the dining area, she dialed up the happy expression again and went on.
"Did you enjoy your meal?"
The chorus was louder this time, "Yes!"
"Well, if you thought that was good, just wait till you try the Tarantula Lair and Coffin and Corpse desserts! They are truly gastronomical!
"First, I'd like to point out that you'll recognize the senior staff of Happy Occasions by their purple polo shirts. If you have any questions about the activities during the evening, please check with them first. Tonight we have a choice of challenges for you. You'll see over in the far corner we have a dodgem cars arena set up. They'll operate with two teams of two cars at a time. In the area across from the dodgems, we have 'bubble soccer'. Do you see those large blow-up balls? Well, you stick your body into one of the balls and then," she lowered her voice, "you beco-o-ome the ball." She paused for effect. "Then you simply roll around on your own or throw yourself at the other balls. Michael is over there to help you with that. It might not be wise to do that directly after your meal.
"Jennifer is in charge of the mystery box here in the center section on my left." She waved her hand in the general direction. "The mystery slime box probably has the best prizes of the evening--lovely wine, dinner coupons and even a couple of vouchers for a weekend away courtesy of your boss, but you must put your arm all the way through the slime to grab the billiard ball at the other end. The number on the ball will correspond to a prize and you can see moi over at the prize table after nine o'clock."
The box she pointed to was as long as Hermione's forearm. It enclosed chilled gel that felt like a gooey slime even though it was enclosed in dark, plastic covered packets so that patrons didn't finish with gel all over their arms. A small battery-powered green light within the box blinked a spooky warning to would-be participants.
"You can play balloon darts. Have a go at the apple bobbing, hula hoops, the slippery egg and spoon time trial or you can try to stay where you are for the rest of the evening, but," she tilted her head to one side and looked grim, "don't count on it."
She looked up again and gave a huge grin. "Dessert is about to arrive. Coffee and tea will continue to be available during the evening and Leon will be tending the bar until eleven. You're all here to enjoy yourselves. Please make sure you do."
She gave a big wave and moved to step down off the little dais behind the lectern. As she did so, her eyes clashed with those of a gorgeous but sardonic-looking man sitting at the table in front of her. Her heart skipped a beat and she grabbed the lectern just in time to prevent herself from falling face down onto his table. She quickly gathered up her dignity and glanced back at him. He was still watching her with a bored, world-weary look and an infinitesimal quirk of one eyebrow.
Judging by what she could see of him, she thought he'd be at least as tall as Felicity who sat to his left talking with one of the overseas visitors. In an instant, Hermione took in the angular, no-nonsense features of his face: dark brows; straight nose; fathomless brown eyes. He was dressed in a lounge suit, clearly not one for Halloween dress-ups then.
Felicity Oberon angled back towards the man briefly to say something and with a small smirk he turned away from Hap to join the conversation at the table.
Hap moved towards the kitchen to see how Ali, the chef, and her small band were coping. She felt strangely unsettled. The man had made her nervous and she was never nervous. Especially here, where she was in control.
"What was his problem?" she muttered to herself. She'd never had a complete stranger engage her and dismiss her within the space of five seconds before. Okay, so I'm short compared to the beauty next to him, so what? Was it something I said? Was it the way I said it? I've never met him and I don't even know who he is! And after this evening I might not ever see him again. That last thought brought her up short. So why am I obsessing over a five second encounter? She laughed to herself and with the laugh still on her face she walked into the kitchen.
"Hi Ali! How are you going?" Ali was twenty-six but had the face of a sixteen year old which made most potential employers wonder about her competence to run a kitchen and its staff. But she and Hermione had just clicked when Ali came to interview for the job. Each recognized in the other the need to be accepted for who they were not what they looked like.
Ali had been put under extra pressure tonight because of some extra, last-minute guests.
Ellie, the Marketing Manager for Yarlox and the liaison for tonight's event, had phoned Hap just over two hours ago.
The conversation started off simply enough.
"Hi Hermione! I just wanted to check that you've left wheelchair space at the top table. You did say your facilities have wheelchair access didn't you?"
"We do," Hermione answered, "but remember that you need to come from the car park. We couldn't do anything about changing the footpath guttering that creates mobility problems at the street entry so we've built easy access at the rear of the building."
"Good. Good. I'll remember to tell the driver." She paused, and Hermione could hear her shuffling paper at the other end.
"Er Hermione, we need to alter the numbers for tonight." Her uncharacteristic diffidence had set off alarm bells. "We have a visiting group of six Singaporean clients with their partners who can't leave town because of the baggage handling strike at the airport, so they are trapped in Sydney for another night and we need to entertain them too. Can you fit them in?" she'd said without stopping to draw breath.
"Are you saying you want me to fit in another twelve guests?" Hermione felt her head spin. Food. Games. Prizes--everyone had to get a prize.
"Fourteen, including two teenagers." Ellie rushed on. "Mr. Yarborough recognizes that there will be extra costs and he's agreed to another prize for a weekend away, wine vouchers and movie passes. We just can't leave these important people to muddle along for themselves in Sydney overnight."
Hermione's quick mind sought and found possible solutions. It would only need an extra couple of place settings at each table and a check on the food. They could handle it.
"The visitors should know that alcohol will be served and that it is a Halloween party. I'm not sure how culturally appropriate that will be for them."
"No, that's fine. They are pretty well in tune with western customs so, although some of them will not partake of alcohol, they're okay with others drinking it. As for Halloween, I'm pretty sure they have a version of it at home. I'll make sure they understand the background to it and assure them that it doesn't reflect a belief system--just an excuse for a theme party." She laughed briefly. "If any of them, especially the teens, want fancy dress like our folk, I'll let you know. Otherwise, I'll see you at six."
When Hap confronted Ali with the bombshell of extra guests, Ali's young face looked at the ceiling and she pouted her bottom lip as she pondered briefly. "No problem!" she declared. "The soups will stretch. Won't take much to make up more of the chicken. There are always extras of the desserts but I'll see what the bakery next door has available. They might have something that I can serve with whipped cream or ice-cream if needed. We can always have the leftovers for morning tea tomorrow. Larger bowls of vegies on the tables. We'll need more menus but Cam can handle that. He's a whiz."
Now, a tired-looking Ali turned towards Hermione. "Well, it's been pretty full-on, Hap," she said. "I don't think people noticed that there were slightly more chicken servings than the boeuf bourguignon. There are plenty of desserts, so after we've served them at the tables, we can leave some extras out with the tea and coffee in case people want seconds."
She paused as Marlene, the crew boss, joined them in the kitchen. Marlene was in her early forties and renowned in the industry for taking a group of people and turning them into silver service table stewards. She was also in charge of the cleaning crews.
When Hap had asked her if she was going to need extra help for this special presentation and additional guests, she declined and explained, "I've got students on work placement from the high school tonight and they don't count in my staffing so we already have extras but we might not have as much time to train them as we go."
"Well I'll take over part of your serving role and you concentrate on the students. They need to make a good impression, too, if they're part of our team for the night. Will you have time to do a run-through with them before guests start arriving?"
"Mmm, I always make sure of that. But I'll need someone to help Leon on the bar and serving at the table because the students are under age to supply alcohol," she'd said. Hap and Cameron both had the required registration for the service of alcohol so both could help out with that as required.
Ali turned to Marlene, now. "Your students have been wonderful. They did their serving tasks but have helped me to clean up out here as well. Great kids."
"Need any help, with anything?" Hap swung her gaze between the chef and the crew boss.
"Always!" Ali said. "Since we sent the last apprentice on to Rosetti's to finish her training, I've been a bit short-handed. Can you get an ad up when you can for another first-year apprentice?" At Hap's nod, she went on, "So, do you want to unload the dishwasher or help serve dessert?"
"Which is more urgent?"
"Serving, I think. We can come back to the dishes later."
"Okay. Marlene, where do you want me to serve?"
"If you can serve the top table, I won't have to supervise that. Just remember to start with the guy in the wheelchair. Offer him his choice of lemon or chocolate and then alternate drops either side of him. Okay? We should be able to handle the rest."
Hap hadn't noticed the wheelchair though she knew there was meant to be one somewhere at the top table. On the menu, as Hap had explained to the crowd, there were two desserts. One was named Tarantula Lair for the evening. It was an ambrosial lemon tart. In the center was a spider constructed out of the two sizes of chocolate chips. From the larger one, eight legs had been piped on the tart and on the smaller chocolate chip, two eyes had been fashioned. Over the top of all of that had been arranged cobwebby white fairy floss. It truly did look like the spider was lurking in its lair.
The second dessert was made from dark chocolate nests formed in special coffin molds that Ali had ordered. The 'coffins' were layered with small sticks of white chocolate 'bones' and then filled with light-as-air chocolate mousse, liberally sprinkled with small chocolate shavings that looked like soil piled on top. At the head of each was a small shortbread cookie with RIP piped on it. The plates were decorated with a spider web onto which the dessert was laid. The students had already distributed large bowls of whipped cream to the tables so guests could serve themselves.
Hap gathered up two of each dessert, laying two along her left forearm and clasping one in each of her hands. She proceeded to the top table looking for the wheelchair. She found it with her foot and nearly toppled over. Great impression, she winced to herself.
"Good evening, sir. Would you care for the Tarantula Lair or the Coffin and Corpse this evening?" She spoke to the back of a head full of springy dark hair. As the face turned towards her, she once again nearly dropped everything as she identified the man she'd been obsessing over. She managed to smile and waited for his preference.
"Which do you recommend?" His voice was deep and smooth and set up an odd tightness in her chest.
"They are both sublime. Do you prefer chocolate or lemon?" She smiled again.
His tongue tip slipped out as though he were tasting the air. The small movement sent a reaction zinging through Hap's body. "Lemon, tonight I think. Something with a bit of zest to it."
"Certainly, sir." She gave silent thanks that the lemon dessert was in her right hand so that she didn't have to juggle the dishes in her left hand to get the right one. As she leaned forward to place the dish in front of him, she breathed in a heady, spicy fragrance with citrus notes. Oh Lord, what was happening here? She'd never been aware of a client like this before. He made her skittish. She turned away and moved on to the next guest. With her load delivered, she returned to the kitchen. Gathering up the next set of plates, she made her way back to the top table carefully steering clear of the wheelchair and its occupant. She served her guests and was about to turn away again.
A movement at the corner of her eye caught her attention and she glanced up to see 'him' calling her over with a flick of his hand. She circled the table till she stood just behind his left shoulder. Even though he gave the impression of being a bit gangly and ill-at-ease, he exuded a sense of power as formidable as a force field without so much as turning his head.
"Can I help you, sir?" As she leaned over to hear what he was saying, she took a moment to check the name card in front of him. Yikes it was the boss himself! Zach Yarborough was a self-made multi-millionaire from what she'd heard. Her shock almost made her miss what he was saying.
"A bottle of the Botrytis Riesling? Certainly. I'll have Leon bring that to you."
"Oh don't bother him. I'd prefer it if you could bring it over straight away. By the time you find your barman, we'll have finished our dessert," he muttered testily.
"Of course sir. I won't be a moment." Hap inclined her head offering just the right degree of professional subservience.
She hurried back to the kitchen, strapped on her wine belt, dropped the tall slim bottle of Riesling into one of the three oversize cup holders slung from the belt, a bottle of Muscat into another holder and filled the final container with a bottle of Topaque, just in case. She quickly gathered up the two remaining desserts, drew in a deep breath to steady her disconcerting bout of nerves and returned to the table.
The boss looked a trifle put out when she served the desserts and he was about to speak when Hap circumnavigated the table to stand next to him again. She presented the bottle of Riesling with a flourish, her professionalism firmly back in place, at least on the outside.
"Your Riesling, sir. We source our dessert wines from the Rutherglen region in northern Victoria. This one will complement your lemon dessert well. It has the Botrytis characteristics of lemon, honey and lime followed by dried apricots and spice with excellent palate length and depth. I think you'll enjoy it. Would you like to taste?"
"Did I ask for Riesling? I believe I want a Tokay." His bottom lip pouted oh so slightly.
Flipping the Riesling back into its holder, Hap whipped out the Topaque. "My apologies for the error," Hap smiled serenely. She knew that she had not gotten it wrong but if the customer wanted to play it that way, she would handle it. She presented the bottle for his inspection.
"In 2005, Hungary claimed intellectual property rights to the name Tokay in much the same way the French did with champagne, so Australian versions of the wine are now called Topaque. The wine we have for you is produced from a white variety and has a wonderful spectrum of flavors ranging from sweet citrus fruits, through to toffee, butterscotch and honeycomb."
"Don't you have any red varieties?" he challenged.
"Of course, sir. Would you prefer the Muscat?" Hermione gritted her teeth but still managed to smile. "Our Muscat is an eight-year-old wine with characteristics of raisins, toffee, caramel, butterscotch and dried fruit. It would be a better complement to the chocolate dessert but if that's what you prefer, I'll be happy to provide that for you, and, if you like, I can have one of the chocolate desserts brought out for your pleasure."
"Yes. You can fetch the Muscat for us, but I'll stay with the dessert I've got."
Hap withdrew the bottle of Topaque and passed her hand around to the small of her back to retrieve the bottle of Muscat and held it out for him.
"Would you like me to serve this for you or do you wish to do that yourself?" She allowed her eyes to widen slightly with a fleeting flash of satisfaction and then brought herself hastily back under control and smiled sweetly.
The man looked momentarily startled. Then, as though realizing that he had been efficiently and summarily hoist on his own petard, he laughed self-deprecatingly.
"I'll handle it. And you can leave the Topaque and the Riesling as well."
"Thank you, sir." She whipped out the bottle opener, sliced around the foil at the neck of the first bottle, removed the foil and slipped it into her apron pocket. She inserted the corkscrew and slid out the cork placing it in the saucer waiting on the table and put down the bottle beside it.
Keeping her face expressionless, despite the combined efforts of her irritation and the frisson of awareness running through her body at the sound of his low rumbling laugh, Hap took hold of the Topaque, repeated the opening process and placed that bottle, too, on the table in front of him. Finally stepping through the process for the last bottle, she stood back. "Is there anything else I can help you with at the moment? No? Well, just let me know when I can." She flashed a final tight smile.
Hap gathered up redundant side-plates as she made her way back to the kitchen. She'd heard on the grape-vine that Zach Yarborough was a bit geeky and a lot nerdy. Maybe he was, but that didn't stop him from throwing his weight around, it seemed. She'd also heard that he demanded high standards and was the arch-cynic when it came to anything approaching frivolity. He was certainly living up to that reputation tonight. If she wanted this night to be a success to help ensure the ongoing viability of her business, she needed to get him to lighten up a bit. Maybe she'd just have to seduce him with what she had on offer, she mused.
She mentally replayed that last thought. With a grin to herself, she amended it to: what the business had to offer. A mega-millionaire, even though he was around her own age, was clearly not interested in her personally--a shortish, roundish, pushy kind of broad. She shrugged.
As soon as she was safely through the kitchen doors and out of sight of the main area, she gave herself a shake like a wet dog to cast off any thoughts of the man, took a deep breath, and moved further into the kitchen to help Ali with the clearing away.
She'd make a note to self to add an aggravation tax to the cost of those wines!
As the wait staff began retrieving the dessert dishes from the tables, Hap returned to the main area and gave Cameron, her sound and lighting man, the signal to move the music to a brighter beat for the evening's entertainment.
The newly installed and hugely expensive video floor and wall tiles around and beneath the dance floor had been showing ghoulish scenes while light jazz played behind them during dinner.
As the music changed, Cam also changed the underfoot video screens from the Halloween images to lightning strikes of color to encourage the guests to move away from their tables.
Hap's team had put a lot of thought into all aspects of the evening's presentation. Both of the entry halls into the center were dripping with a green ghoulish gelatinous concoction that dropped down the partitions into hidden recesses where it was immediately recycled to the top to drop and drizzle again. Cam had kept the lights in these areas dark with strobes of green and red light and the occasional flash of bright white light to highlight a macabre picture on the wall. Even the bravest soul would have been startled at some point along the fifteen-meter arrival corridor that was the entry from the street. The much shorter foyer from the car park could also throw up a surprise or two.
The darkened hall gave way to bright lights in various parts of the huge area. There were pumpkin lanterns placed strategically around the space and cobweb-draped room dividers to differentiate areas set aside for bubble soccer, apple bobbing, the mystery box, balloon darts; dodgems and the dance floor. In an open section, a bar was set up with a few tables and stools located around it.
At the far end, close to the kitchens, were the dining tables. They were decorated in various Halloween themes and set with menus that promised such delights as 'Blood Bath' (beef borscht) 'Oozing breast of beast' (chicken stuffed with brie and avocado) and 'Gratinéed green brains' (broccoli covered in a delectable cheese sauce).
As Cameron turned up the volume on the music, many took the hint and soon all of the activities were well subscribed. The visiting teenagers, both wearing skeleton costumes, were the first to give the slippery egg and spoon race a try. Balloons started popping as darts landed on target and squeals of delight echoed around the space from the apple bobbing.
Cam began to roam the area offering advice and encouragement to the participants. He was of medium height, with bright copper-colored hair and was deadly serious about his sound and lighting work. When he walked away from the immediate demands of electrical installations, though, he was a cheeky party animal and this helped when there were many guests in as there were tonight.
It was sometimes a struggle to get people to open themselves up to taking the chance to indulge in the fantasies of childhood, but Cam was good at cajoling shy young women into taking a chance, while Hap would encourage less certain older clients to attempt the easier activities and then promote them on to more difficult ones. For both Cameron and Hap, it was a great feeling when they had everyone in the mood to enjoy themselves.
At the top table, only Zach Yarborough remained in his place. Hap made her way over to him and asked if there was anything he needed.
"No? Perhaps you'd like to try the activities then?"
He looked at her scornfully. "This isn't for show you know," he said banging the arms of his wheelchair.
"You could try the hanging apple bobs or the balloon darts," she suggested.
"I don't think so." His top lip folded down and his nostrils tightened as if trying to prevent a bad smell from assailing their delicate sensitivities. "I choose not to make a fool of myself for other people's entertainment."
Hap looked him directly in the eye, reached forward and turned over one of the menus. She tapped her index finger on the company motto on the back cover, lifted her chin and walked way.
Zach wasn't sure why he felt the need to assert his authority over this woman, but her very being was goading him into action. Yet, he instinctively turned his head to catch the last of her fragrance as she moved away.
Zach really did not enjoy these party events. He never had. That had been much more Simon's style. Simon had been Zach's friend and partner until his death five years ago in the accident that had landed Zach in a wheelchair. Zach was a backroom IT guy, winkled out of his safe space by his own success. And he really didn't need happy little events organizers with the body of a Botticelli Venus trying to get him into the spirit of the whole damned charade.
He frowned after her and then he turned to where she had pointed.
He looked down and read: "You won't win every trial, but if you never try, you've lost already!"
He glared at Hermione's retreating back. Was she calling him a loser? He spun his wheelchair ready to follow her. Now that he was facing the space instead of sitting with his back to it, he could see that his employees were laughing and having fun.
He looked over to see Arnold, the firm's chief accountant being lured over to the bubble soccer by Hermione "Wise-Ass" Youngson. "Huh!" he thought, "that'll never happen." Arnold was an outstanding chief financial officer, in his opinion, but as up-tight as they came.
Arnold's deportment screamed social ineptitude. He was clearly uncomfortable with what he was being asked to do.
Zach saw Hermione wave over a woman in chef's trousers to help persuade his CFO into the large puffy plastic balls. The chef was of small to medium height and looked miniscule standing next to Arnold's tall, lanky frame. But, at her arrival, the change in his CFO was instant. It was as though he'd been zapped by lightning and appeared to be in a trance as the smaller figure beside him took his hand and led him over to the game.
Zach watched as Arnold and the chef donned the covering of the large blow-up spheres and then repeatedly bounced off each other playfully, rolled around on the ground, got up and charged each other again until they both slid out of the balls and laughed heartily. Zach couldn't believe his eyes as his CFO allowed himself to be meekly led over to the apple bobbing and then on to the dodgems.
He'd had enough. Zach pulled a phone out of his pocket and spoke into it briefly. Almost immediately, a man wearing a YarLox jacket was beside him, helping him to navigate his way through the crowd and out into the car park.
It was time to go. It wasn't until much later that he realized he had completely forgotten about farewelling his international guests and the fact he was meant to take Felicity home tonight. He'd send her a text message and tell her Bill, his driver, would be available to drive her home and to collect any of the international visitors who required transport back to their hotels.
Damn Hermione Youngson! Who the hell did she think she was?