“This kitchen should be declared a disaster zone,” Ella muttered. The remains of a package of sweet rolls sat uncovered on the table, next to an empty milk carton. She pulled a box of corn flakes from the back of the fridge, grateful no other occupant of the condo would eat unsweetened cereal.
Distrustful of the dishes, Ella poured a handful of corn flakes onto a paper towel. While standing and eating with her fingers, she marveled at how quickly the kitchen she’d cleaned yesterday now resembled a pig sty. She wasn’t sure exactly how a pig sty would look. Nevertheless, the description felt right.
Although her father’s divorce settlement gave the high-rise condo to her stepmother Tina, Ella’s dad insisted his daughter must be allowed to wait until graduation from college before moving. The arrangement seemed to make sense, since the condo was within walking distance of her school. When Tina’s two grown daughters moved in, Ella gritted her teeth. Surely she could cope for four more weeks.
Thankful there was a lock on her bedroom door, Ella retreated to her small room. She changed the sheets on her bed and stuffed the week’s laundry into a pillow case. After a quick escape to the elevator, she unlocked her condo’s mailbox and took the one letter addressed to her. She smiled while stuffing the remaining envelopes back into the box. Either Tina didn’t know there was a spare key, or she was unconcerned as long as her own mail was intact.
After starting two loads of wash, Ella sat on a plastic chair in the condo’s basement laundry room and opened her letter. How sweet, she thought as she read the note from her Aunt Helen. She wants me to go to my graduation ball, and sent me money for a new dress. Shopping would be a lot more fun than spending the day at the library. Only two weeks remain now. Then I’ll be done with school, and Tina.
Ella dropped her clean laundry with the condo’s doorman for temporary storage, and headed for the fashion district.
“Lovely,” the sales clerk exclaimed when Ella ventured from the fitting room in a green bias cut dress.
Ella checked her reflection in the three-way mirror. “Too slinky,” she said. The red dress showed far too much skin. She glanced up and shook her head at the sequin-spangled number the clerk held out to her. “I’ve lived in jeans and sweats for four years,” she explained. “At my graduation ball, I want to look like a princess.”
After trying several stores, Ella spied a resale boutique. Rushing inside, she checked the size and price tag on the dress in the window. Even before she slipped the silky fabric over her head, Ella knew the frothy pink gown was exactly what she wanted. As she adjusted the deep hem ruffle, she thought of the shoes she’d noticed earlier.
After purchasing her dream dress, Ella retraced her steps to fashion row, in pursuit of high heels. When she saw the pink beauties, she stood near and unzipped the garment bag that held her new ball gown. A perfect match! She used most of the remaining money from her aunt to purchase size seven triple A stilettos. Ella’s slender feet and slight body kept Tina’s daughters from plundering her clothes, though her scarves and hats disappeared if she neglected to keep them locked away.
On the way home, Ella dialed her Aunt Helen’s phone number. “Thank you so much for the check. I went shopping this morning and found a dress I absolutely love. You are the sweetest aunt ever!”
Helen replied in her smoky voice. “Since George and I are your godparents, we have to take care of you while your father is away. I hope you have a wonderful time at your graduation dance.”
“I know I will, wearing the dress you made possible.” Ella said. “Thank you again, Aunt Helen.” When she arrived at her high-rise, Ella slipped the doorman a tip and retrieved her laundry.
“All three of them left about three o’clock,” he said with a wink.
Ella was relieved to drag her packages into the elevator with no concern about running into Tina. After unloading her parcels in her bedroom, she made a peanut butter sandwich and retreated behind the locked door. Her well-established Saturday evening ritual unfolded as usual. She watched a movie–with headphones—studied, and slept. On Sunday morning, she’d dash off to church before her disagreeable stepmother and stepsisters were out of bed.
The following Saturday, Ella stayed in her bedroom until time to dress for the ball. It was several blocks to the posh hotel ballroom on the other side of the college campus–too far to walk in new heels. She felt only slightly awkward walking down the city street in her formal dress and flip flops. After crossing the campus, she ducked into the familiar science building. Two students working in the far corner of a laboratory hardly looked up when Ella walked in. She nodded to them, changed into her stunning stilettos, and tossed her flip flops under a chair. She chuckled at her absurd wish for a full-length mirror. In the science building? Really? She wobbled only a little, walking the half of a block from the science building to the hotel.
Uncertainty squeezed the breath from Ella as she entered the ballroom. I won’t see anyone I know. Nobody will ask me to dance. Why did I come? I know why—I absolutely had to wear my princess outfit! Maybe there will be a photographer on hand to capture my moment of fashion splendor.
Near a table piled high with hors d’oeuvres, a young woman smiled. “Hello, I’m Megan.”
“Hi, Megan. I’m Ella. Kind of strange to meet each other at the end of our senior year, isn’t it?”
“I’m a sophomore,” Megan replied. “My date is the graduating senior. I’m studying drama. What’s your major?”
Ella briefly considered avoiding the question. Instead, she mumbled, “Chemical engineering.”
“Oh. Will you excuse me?” With a whirl of chiffon, Megan melted into the crowd, leaving a trace of sweet-smelling perfume trailing behind her.
After loading her plate with shrimp canapés, bacon-wrapped water chestnuts, cubes of cheese, and grapes, Ella wandered to the terrace. She sat alone nibbling her food, enjoying the light breeze, and watching daylight fade.
A man’s voice unexpectedly broke into her reverie. “Beautiful evening isn’t it?”
“Yes,” she answered without turning around. “I’ll miss living here.”
“You’re Ella Watson,” he said.
She looked behind her and saw a familiar face. “Mr. Prince! You taught me calculus.”
“Technically, Dr. Schwartz was your professor. I am a lowly graduate teaching assistant. But, yes, you were in my class last semester.” He smiled, showing a deep dimple in one cheek. “And now you’re ready to graduate.”
“Yes,” Ella replied. “Finally.”
She turned to face him, noticing how his thick, dark hair complemented his brown eyes and olive skin. He probably knew students made jokes about his name, calling him the Prince of High Math instead of Mr. Prince. “Florida, I guess.”
“You’re guessing?” He placed his empty glass on a nearby wrought iron table.
“I’m hoping to be offered a job soon. I’ve applied lots of places. Meanwhile, I have to move and my dad’s beach house is vacant. So, yes, things are still unsettled.”
“I’m leaving the city at the end of school, also,” Prince volunteered. “Going south to work on my PhD.”
“That’s nice,” Ella said. What an inane comment. Why can I never think of anything witty to say to a handsome fellow?
“Would you like to dance?”
Something about his nearness unsettled Ella, yet in a pleasant way. “It’s so crowded in there.”
“Why do we have to go inside? Can’t you hear the music?” Without waiting for a reply, he extended his arms.
Ella stepped into his embrace. As they began to waltz, she nestled against his chest, wishing the band would never stop playing. Something about the night air and the way Jeremiah Prince held her unleashed Ella’s need for a confidant. She told him about her bizarre living arrangement, the emotional detachment of her father, and the antics of her stepmother and stepsisters. She learned Jeremiah’s fiancée broke off their engagement a year ago.
A sudden thunderstorm sent the couple scurrying for cover inside the hotel ballroom. “The forecast was sunny and mild,” Ella said, laughing at the raindrops.
“Do you have a car here, or did you take a taxi?” he asked her.
“Neither,” she replied. “I walked.”
“In those shoes?” He had a charming way of cocking one eyebrow when he asked a question.
Ella smiled and shrugged. “It’s a long story.”
“I’ll hail us a cab, if you’ll allow me to see you home,” he said.
Later, Ella stood in the lobby of the high-rise, watching the yellow taxi disappear into the darkness. She hoped he would call her.
On Sunday morning, she emerged from the elevator into the lobby of the high-rise, still glowing from the previous evening’s encounter. Suddenly, she became aware of someone falling into step beside her. “I believe these are yours?” Jeremiah Prince held up the flip flops she’d left in the science building the night before.
“Why, yes. Yes, they are.”
He smiled. “The science building almost touches the back of the hotel. So that’s where I searched.”
Ella took her slippers, turning them over and over. “Searched? I don’t understand.”
“I was certain you left a shoe or two left behind.” He caressed her fingertips. “That’s how it had to be.”
“Why?” She stared into his beautiful eyes.
“Remember, class rolls don’t use nicknames, Ella. I’ve known all along you’re really Cinderella.”
-by Carlene Havel, http://goo.gl/ugcII