Authors: Brooke Harris
Rules of Harte
Edited by Laura Kingsley
Cover by Cover it! Design
Copyright © 201
4 Brooke Harris
All rights reserved.
For Mr H
For loving me, in spite of my obsession with this writing business.
Ms Evangeline Andrews,
You are cordially invited to an evening of splendour and extravagance.
Waterside Stud Farm
Eva was greeted first thing on Monday morning by the small, rectangular invitation waiting on her desk. She brushed her fingers across the crisp, ivory paper. The raised gold font felt like tiny bubbles under her touch. She looked over her shoulder, expecting to find sniggering faces staring at her. But there was nothing out of the ordinary. If this was Mia’s idea of a joke,she hadn’t let anyone in on the punch line yet. Eva checked her watch. Damn, she had five minutes and she was hoping to dash to the loo first. No time, she’d have to hold it
She couldn’t be late.
The room stank. A mix of too much perfume, bitter coffee and…Eva took a deep sniff and coughed dryly. Ugh. Stale, cling-to-your-clothes cigar smoke. Yuck. She cast her eyes around without actually moving her head. Everyone in the boardroom was under forty, at least. Who the hell under forty smokes cigars? Or…maybe that was what all the popular people did, she thought. Cigars and Brandy before a meeting at 10am. It was like 1920 all over again. But it had a nice ring to it, didn’t it? Maybe she should take up the habit. Ha. She could smoke a camp fire and she’d still be invisible to these people.
A seat at the huge, oval table offered a panoramic view of everyone and everything in the room. Between fiddling with her nails and looking out the window, she kept herself entertained by watching grown adults in smart attire pass notes subtly and try to hide a laugh. Mia, the office manager, continued her infamous Monday Minutes obliviously. The two guys either side of her were practically drooling. Last week, Eva had spotted one of the interns slip Mia’s used coaster into his trouser pocket as if it were celebrity memorabilia. Mia,
the rock star of the business world
, Eva thought, rolling her eyes.
‘So…’ Mia said, the apples of her cheeks rounded by her huge smile. ‘We have a couple of newbies with us.’
Eva looked towards the coaster collector and smiled friendlily.
‘Everyone give a warm welcome to Niall or Nigel or…’
‘Nathan,’ the intern mumbled softly.
Mia flicked her hand as if she was swatting an irritating fly. ‘Whatever.’
She quickly reverted her stare back across the room. ‘And another big hello goes to Evangeline.’
Eva tapped her chest with her fingers. ‘Me?’
‘Of course you, silly. Now, stand up and give us all a few words.’
Eva’s chair squeaked sharply as she shakily got to her feet. She wasn’t new. And she guessed half the room, who stared at her blankly, knew it too. She’d worked in Ignite Technologies for almost a year, but if there was one thing she’d learned in that time, it was that you didn’t contradict Mia - ever.
Eva cleared her throat as Mia tapped the side of her glass with a paper clip.
Christ, she wasn’t giving a
wedding toast. Was she? A couple of coughs and some shushing followed. Eva swallowed a little bile.
‘Hi everyone. I’m Evangeline Andrews and I’m…’
‘Oh my God. Are you American?’ Someone at the far end of the massive, oval table said, as if American was synonymous with a three-eyed, slimy-tentacle endowed alien.
‘Erm, yeah. New Jersey originally.’
‘No way. My grandmother is fro
m Hoboken. I visit every summer,’ the voice continued. Eva craned her neck to see who was talking, but the afternoon sun was glaring in the huge window, blinding her.
‘Okay, chatterbox. We
get the picture. Thank you, Eva,’ Mia said, rolling her eyes and shaking her head dismissively.
Eva sat back down sheepishly and stared at the table
, feeling as if someone had just knocked the air out of her.
‘Okay,’ Mia continued, her enthusiasm punctuated by a single, loud clap of her hands and she paused until she had everyone’s attention.
‘I didn’t say anything on Friday because I didn’t want to get your hopes up, but
, Mr Doe will be dialling in this morning. He has an important announcement for us.’
A huge cheer and applauding erupted as if everyone had just found out they’d scooped a share in the lottery.
Oh Christ, Eva thought, chewing the back of her pencil nervously. Was she the only one whose airways were starting to close over?
‘So, you know the drill,’ Mia said. ‘If you need to freshen up
, you have five minutes. Don’t be late back. Mr Doe doesn’t wait for anyone…not even me.’
The air outside the conference room seemed easier to breathe. Eva was one of the few to leave. Others seemed content to slouch back in their chairs and chat amongst themselves to kill the time.
It’s only a conference call. You can do this.
Eva’s reflection nodded back at her unconvincingly from the bathroom mirror. She took a couple of gulping-style breaths and ran her hands through her limp, mousy brown hair.
‘I hate you,’ she continued, tugging on its fine ends.
She quickly lowered her hands as the bathroom door swung open and giggling voices filled the air. Eva dabbed under her eyes with a moist tissue and pretended to adjust the mascara she wasn’t wearing.
‘There you are,
’ Mia said. ‘Oh, I love your cardigan; it really brings out your…um… eyes.’
Eva roughly pulled her cardiga
n closed, hiding a huge coffee stain on her blouse from earlier that morning.
‘Yeah lovely. Really lovely.’ A couple of Eva’s co-workers echoed from the sanctuary of Mia’s shadow.
Mia brushed passed Eva for an unobstructed view in the mirror. She mimicked Eva’s make up adjusting antics, only she was actually wearing some, and she pulled back from the mirror, looking even more fabulous than before. Eva couldn’t help stare at her high cheek bones and thick, long lashes. Eva faked a smile and hoped her envy wasn’t written all over her face.
‘Isn’t it so exciting?’ Mia asked, irritatingly unfazed by the awkward silence. ‘I can’t wait to buy my dress.’
‘Dress?’ Eva could feel her palms sweating at the mere mention of anything that didn’t cover the entire length of her leg.
‘For the company ball.’
Eva looked at the ground awkw
ardly, preparing to be the butt-end of Mia’s joke. She closed her eyes and hoped she’d get it over with quickly.
‘Oh sorry. I should explain,
’ Mia said as she continued to layer on more mascara. ‘Mr Doe dialled in early, just after you left, actually. He shared a couple of details about the ball and, poof, he was gone as quick as that.’
One of the girls behind Mia clicked her fingers while jerking her head
, and it took Eva a moment to realise it was symbolic.
‘I’m so glad it’s black tie this year. I think we could all do with a chance to dress up, don’t you
?’ Mia added, smirking.
Eva’s fake smile became so huge, her ears twitched. She was nodding and shaking her head all at the same time. It was easier to just play along. Minimise the damage, she thought.
‘I can’t wait,’ Eva said, throwing her arms in the air
and adding an enthusiastic, ‘woo-hoo,’ instantly realising that it was too much as Mia and her friend stared back, wide-eyed and motionless.
‘Gotta go,’ Eva lied. ‘Loads to do.’
She heard giggles start again as she left and she didn’t dare turn back.
Back at the safety of her desk, Eva shook her head and closed her eyes. Why did she always make such a fool of herself, she wondered. Mia had actually spoken to her. Mia almost never spoke to her. And all she could manage to do was wiggle her arms like an overactive monkey. It could be weeks again before she’d get another opportunity to talk to her.
Eva knew she was socially awkward. She was born that way and had grown used to it over the last twenty-seven years. She rarely put as much effort into her appearance as the other women she knew. She liked to look good but with minimal effort. Luckily, her clear skin and naturally straight hair allowed her low-maintenance approach to appear as natural and understated. But lately, when even the printer-cleaner-guy was promoted before her, she knew she had to change. Hiding at her desk during lunch, and refusing to go for after-work drinks, had stamped her as the office freak. Freaks didn’t get promoted. At least not there, no matter how hard they worked.
When the email from the social committee circulated later that afternoon, confirming the details of the ball, Eva’s guilt at doubting Mia was marginally outweighed by the panic at the thoughts of attending. She wanted desperately to be noticed, and the black-tie ball was the perfect place to start. But just thinking about it had her skin itching like she was about to break out in hives.
Eva was twitchy for the rest of the day. She’d never done anything like it before but she had no choice. Or at least that’s how she consoled herself. She couldn’t show up at the ball without a date. It would kick her freak status into an all-time high.
The first time she had been awkwardly close to an attractive member of the opposite sex was at her college freshman party. That had ended with her drinking a luminous-green liquid out of a plastic cup and puking on her date’s shoes. Now, ten years later, she’d given up drinking liquids that glowed-in-the-dark, but she still morphed into a babbling idiot as soon as a hot guy appeared on her radar. So, her recent relationships had been less about the looks and more about the nice-guys inside. The skinny guy from the Post Office was lovely, but he wasn’t about to make that office bitch drool with jealously. No. She needed nothing shy of a ten on the hotness scale. Maybe if Mia saw her with a really gorgeous guy, she’d suddenly know Eva existed. Drastic measures weren’t just a career enhancing, they were career saving.
Eva waited until everyone left the office before clicking on the link she had bravely searched for earlier. Casanova Agency appeared in a large, bold, grey font on a soft cream background. There was nothing else. No info, no contact details, nothing. Eva tried swishing her mouse back and forth hoping for an image to appear. Nothing. She pressed almost every key on her keyboard. Nothing. A little bile rushed into Eva’s mouth, and she forced it down with an awkward gulp. What if it was a dodgy site? The whole office system could go down and the IT guys would trace it back to her. Her desk, her PC and a bloody escort site.
She was about to shut the window when she spotted the four tiny letters in the bottom left corner of the screen. She clicked on
and waited. Loading appeared in a small, spinning, circle centre-screen and a soft, violin solo began. She jumped before quickly hitting the mute button.
A phone number appeared on the screen. Nothing more. No picture, or bio or even a name. Eva tutted angrily. She hated clogged up, messy websites as much as the next person but this minimalist crap was ridiculous. She wasn’t about to phone some random stranger. The site was a waste of her time, and just made her feel more pathetic. She was about to shut the browser when an instant message popped up.
Eva’s struggled to breathe. She was getting dizzy from her eyes darting around the office frantically
, and the inside of her lip couldn’t handle much more chewing.
A little shy, are we?’-
Her fingers hovered over her keyboard. She wanted to reply; she just didn’t know what to say, or who she was saying it to.
Would you like my help?’-
Do you always ask so many questions?’-