Bethany House Publishers
Less than one hour ago I felt elegant and sophisticated. Now I feel naked and exposed. I tug at the size-ten vintage Diane von Furstenberg dress caught in one of my stomach folds. My hands are moist with sweat and I ache for a cigarette. I should have waited until after this event was over to quit. Not a wise choice. Breathe in, breathe out, I coach myself. I am fully capable of handling whatever comes my way. I'm a pro.
My stomach roils. I'm not sure if it's from nerves or because I haven't eaten anything for hours, but one small appetizer won't hurt--as long as it doesn't contain sugar, too much butter fat, or anything weirdly exotic that will send me running to the ladies' room faster than a bargain hunter to a Prada sample sale. I pick something up that looks relatively tame, something stuffed in a tiny puff pastry.
"Anything else, ma'am?" the gloved waiter in black tie asks.
"Thank you, no." Please, yes.
Intense energy permeates the room. The guests must assume I am in my element as I smile and wave at them, but they have no idea how strange I feel to be noticed--men checking me out; women seeking me out to chat about frivolous girl stuff. This will take some getting used to--this new body of mine.
Someone catches my arm, distracting me from myself. "He's here. The governor's here!" Michelle quietly squeals. "His limo just pulled up."
Michelle is one of my closest friends. We met the night I discovered my husband was having an affair, one year ago, almost to the day. She was visiting from New York and came to my rescue in the lobby of the Irvine Hyatt Regency, where I had tearfully retreated behind a large potted plant after having confronted my now-soon-to-be ex-husband and his girlfriend near the elevator. I was there on work-related business. He was not--the lying creep. (Sorry, God, but it's true.)
Michelle and I became fast friends from that moment on, in spite of her propensity to shout "Praise the Lord!" when she is happy or "Amen" when making a point. It drives my boss nuts, but I don't mind. Michelle's parents are both ministers, and this outward demonstration of her faith is as natural to her as breathing.
When we first met, I was a very new believer. I was still trying to figure out how a person like me, who had always been drawn to New Age theology and tolerance of all things, could suddenly be convicted that I was totally wrong, so her in-your-face Christianity was a shock to me. But she was there for me in my hour of need, and the fact that we were both plus-size women--although I was considerably heavier--bonded us even more closely. Our friendship continued long distance and when she moved to Brentwood, a chichi area of L.A., I wasted no time getting her to work on one of my favorite committees.
"Great. Thanks for letting me know, Michelle." It's well past the time we expected the governor to arrive, so this is welcome news. Quickly grabbing one more delicate puff pastry as another silver tray passes by, I pop it into my mouth and let it melt, savoring every morsel. This will fill me up for hours--it doesn't take much these days. I lower my voice and practically whisper into my headset to my assistant. "Susan, the governor's here. The Secret Service will make sure he gets into the room."
And what a beautiful room it is. The Grand Salon cast its spell on me years ago, when as a teen I'd attended a wedding here aboard the legendary Queen Mary, docked permanently in Long Beach Harbor. So when the committee suggested a Titanic theme for the Diamond Ball, a benefit to fund the Palmcrest Children's Center, I immediately knew this high-polished wood, crystal, and mirrored palace would be the perfect location.
Secret Service activity rouses me from my thoughts as the electricity kicks up a notch in the room. But at this moment my main concern is not the governor. My main concern is trying to smile graciously at Evelyn Grayson, the honorary chairperson of the committee, who is walking toward me with a look of disdain on her perfectly reconstructed face.
"Dee! Where is he?" the Ice Queen cackles. "Do you know what this looks like? Is he going to be a no-show? What on earth are--"
"Don't worry, Evelyn, he's here. The Secret Service is bringing him through the back entrance right now. We've got it handled, really. You look absolutely stunning this evening."
Evelyn takes a deep breath and appears less anxious and surprisingly grateful for the compliment. She really does look beautiful, regardless of the fact that she's a witch. "Well, thank you, dear. So do you.... That's an old Diane von Furstenberg, isn't it? I had one like it years ago. I suppose I'll go tell the guests at my table that the governor really is our guest of honor. They were beginning to think they'd been duped!"
"Are your guests enjoying themselves so far? May I get your table anything? A bottle of champagne, more appetizers ..." A heavy dose of Prozac for you, perhaps?
"No thank you, dear. We're fine."
And away she goes in a cloud of Creed Fleurissimo, but not before looking over her shoulder to say, "Don't you think a black-and-white Ascot Ball theme would be lovely for next year's event? Have Susan add that to the list."
What list? Watching her walk away on her Prada-clad feet in her Badgley Mischka couture gown that cost what I paid for my last car, I remember what my boss told me years ago when I first began working with wealthy socialites and philanthropists.
"These people are just like you and me, Dee," Areta insisted. "They have the same struggles, the same pain, and the same concerns we do. Many of them suffer from incredible self-esteem issues, especially those you'd least think would. Treat them with respect, yes, but there is no need to bow down to them--you are no one's slave. Once they know you are intimidated by them, that's it. You'll lose your credibility. Remember, they're just like us--except they have a few more zeros at the end of their bank account balance."
"A few" is an understatement. This is Los Angeles. Home to countless beautiful and wealthy people. The combined net worth of the guests in this room tonight is mind-boggling. The old-money philanthropists combined with the new-money celebrities gives us a good mix. Our political guest of honor helped us to attract equally honorable attendees, and because we also targeted several fashion designers to honor and include in our silent auction, many of them have sent their celebrity spokespeople. We have Cindy Crawford for Blackglama Mink and Omega Watches, Madonna for Versace, Nicole Kidman for Chanel, Uma Thurman for Louis Vuitton, Salma Hayek for Avon, and Sarah Jessica Parker for Gap. And Marie Gray's daughter, Kelly Gray, is introducing Angelina Jolie, the new face of St. John Knits. It's a veritable Who's Who of celebrity guests. We lost Paris Hilton for Guess at the last minute because we refused admittance to her latest pocketbook pet.
I can't begin to comprehend the kind of money these folks have, and even as a professional fundraising consultant, not being intimidated always takes a conscious effort for me. But not for my boss and friend. Areta has a way with these folks--with everyone, actually, no matter what their socioeconomic status. She is beloved by the people who butter our bread as well as by those who serve it.
Without a doubt, Areta Rubio is the queen of fundraising in both Los Angeles and Orange Counties. We have worked together for over fifteen years. I started as her assistant--part-time while the kids were still in school--and she taught me everything I know about the wild world of philanthropy.
But her statement that they're "just like us"? No way. I'm not saying everyone in this upper economic bracket is cut from the same piece of gold lamé--there are nice rich people. But as far as this particular group of volunteers is concerned, I've never seen a more spoiled, rude bunch in my life.
I miss Areta. She isn't at the ball tonight because she is handling another event at the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, working for the first time with her new husband. Both widowed, they met at one of the galas we coordinated a few years ago, and it gives me hope that maybe, one day, I too will meet someone new. But not now. I'm not ready; my heart is still raw. Besides, I'm not "officially" divorced yet, a fact that will soon be rectified.
"You've got to see these Secret Service boys!" my assistant gushes into my headset. "Yummy!"
"You're acting like a teenage girl about to meet Brad Pitt, Susan. Settle down. You're on the job." New to our firm, Susan has great potential. She's great with people, has excellent organizational skills, and looks like a million bucks; and our mentoring partnership seems to be working. Since this is her first big event with us, I'm surprised she's not nervous. But I shouldn't be too hard on her--she saved my backside a few hours ago.
In the competitive world of fundraising, especially when developing an annual event that needs to outdo itself from year to year, entertainment is critical, celebrity guests are a must, and a unique theme and dazzling décor are essential. But the major draw is giving the attendees that added "something special."
The Metropolitan Opera in New York City offers "something special" with their annual "On Stage" benefit, where guests party on the great stage of the opera house. The pièce de résistance for our event is the grand prize--we never call it a door prize--and that prize happens to be a round-cut, two-carat diamond from Van Cleef & Arpels valued at twenty-two thousand retail. Hence ... the "Diamond Ball."
Before we opened the Grand Salon at precisely seven this evening, a lavish cocktail hour was held in the adjoining Windsor Room. As guests arrived, they selected a small gray velvet bag that contained a "diamond"--except 999 of the bags contained high-quality cubic zirconias and only one held the real deal. We have diamond appraisal stations set up in various locations just outside the Grand Salon, and throughout the evening, guests have been taking their little gray bags to one of the professional gemologists to have their gem assessed for authenticity. Of course, the appraisers have been instructed to keep secret the owner of the real diamond until the end of the event, when with great flourish, the winner will be announced.
My job earlier this evening was to present the bag with the real diamond to this year's grand chairman and chairwoman, at which time they would add it to the mix. In one of my increasingly frequent menopausal moment memory lapses, I briefly forgot where I'd put it--causing a bit of a sweat.
"There it is," cried Susan, a bit louder than I'd have liked. "You left it on the registration table. It's right there behind Michelle's purse."
On the registration table? Funny, I didn't recall being near the registration table after I retrieved the diamond from the hotel safe. Another "duh" moment in an endless series of "duh" moments these past few months. "Thanks, Susan, you saved my neck," I told her as Michelle handed me the bag, shrugging.
"No problem, boss. That's what I'm here for. I'm glad I found it. Can you imagine what would have happened?"
I didn't want to think about it.
So, as scheduled, under the watchful eyes of a group of guests, oil tycoon Louis Garamond and heiress Mrs. Henry Carson DeBeers III melodramatically placed the bag containing the real diamond into the batch of cubic zirconias, mixed them up, and stepped back to watch as guests reached in and made their selection.