Or read chapter two after the jump!
Remember that promise I'd made to myself, that I wouldn't think about how I'd had sex with Neil? Yeah, after I decided that he was just pretending not to recognize me, that promise flew right out the window.
We assembled in the main office for the big announcement. Elwood and Stern had purchased Porteras from our former parent company, but the format and the styling would stay roughly the same. Neil addressed everyone briefly then let members of the new management team take over. While they talked about gradual changes to policies and procedures, Neil looked around the room, clearly assessing each employee he’d purchased.
All I could think was, I bet everyone can tell I've had sex with him.
Of course they couldn't possibly know that, but I knew it. And that was enough. I went through the morning in an insane state of hyperawareness and total paranoia. When Jake stopped me on my way through reception to ask what I thought about the new boss, I practically shouted, "I don't think about him!" before I could stop myself.
"He's not Gabriella," I said, because it was a safe answer, and true in every context. Neil had spoken to everyone in a natural, unthreatening way. If Gabriella had been there, she would have eviscerated him with lasers from her eyes.
"Did you hear he's nixed the Versailles shoot?" Jake swore under his breath. "I know it's shitty to complain about losing an all-expenses-paid trip to France, but that was supposed to be my crowning achievement here. I might have gotten a book deal."
For over a year, Jake had been orchestrating a massive photo shoot at the Palace of Versailles. Designers had submitted special pieces. It all had been meant as a framework to showcase Jake's essay on pre-Revolution French fashion and its influence on contemporary design.
"What?" I took him by the arm and pulled him aside, so we didn't block the flow of traffic as the office resumed normal operations. "He's cutting it?"
"No, he's not cutting it." Jake leaned his shoulder against the wall. "But we're not going to France. His idea was to shoot on a set, with the models in Baroque frames. 'The flavor of French nobility, without the expense of French nobility.' And I can't really say I blame him. I mean, if the magazine is doing poorly - "
"How poorly?" I interrupted. It was something I was dying to know. If Porteras was going down, why hadn't we heard rumors about it? People were consistently rooting for us to fail, because we were, without a doubt, the top.
Jake frowned. "He didn't say. I don't think we'll ever know the whole story."
No, we probably wouldn't. But that was no excuse for me to start thinking well of Neil Elwood.
"Canceling the shoot is bullshit. That spread was your baby, and now this guy just comes along and stabs it in the throat?"
Jake's frown deepened. "Ew."
Okay, maybe I should have left out the baby stabbing. But I couldn't stand it if Jake turned team Neil in one day. I'd seen how everyone had gone from nervous about the fates of their jobs to being charmed by their charismatic new boss within seconds. It seemed unfair, and I was totally taking it personally.
"I am leaving!" Cassidy, one of the copy writers, pushed past us carrying a carton that appeared to hold her entire desk.
"Whoa, Cass, what's wrong?" Jake caught her as she stalked by, and she whirled on us. I can only assume she was so full of venom that it had to go somewhere. The fact that we were the ones who milked her fangs was just bad luck.
"I am not going to work for him! I came here to work for Gabriella Winters." She lifted her chin a bit when she said that holy name. "Where's the prestige in working for a magazine owned by the same people who publish three major tabloids and All Woman Weekly? That's a fat people magazine!"
Cassidy could drag "fat people" into several syllables by extending the consonants. She said it like, "fffffffat peopllllle," as though her rage over their very existence caused a chronic speech impediment.
I thought of all the size twenty-eight dresses hanging in my mom's closet at home, and I realized I wouldn't miss Cassidy all that much.
But she did have one good point. Porteras wasn't just a fashion magazine, it was the fashion magazine. It was fashion, and what got printed in its revered pages dictated what was worn by the Western world. Would it still be respected and admired by the people who mattered if it shared a parent company with magazines that paid top dollar for paparazzi shots of pregnant celebrities in bikinis?
I went back to my desk and checked my itinerary for the day. A lot of stuff got crossed off by virtue of my boss not being my boss anymore. I wouldn't be driving Gabriella's dog, Empress Catherine, to her pedicure. I wouldn't be attending a luncheon meeting with the Calvin Klein advertising people either, which was a shame. I leaned my elbows on my desk and contemplated Penelope's empty one across from mine. Where the hell was she?
My iPhone alerted me to a new text. I didn't recognize the number, but I could guess who it came from when it said, "May I see you in my office?"
I rose and took a deep breath. I hadn't even realized Neil was behind the closed door. Probably in there with the testosterone brigade, still.
When I knocked, Neil called, "Come in, Sophie."
I stepped into the office, and my mood flipped from relieved that his goon squad wasn't with him to dread that I was in his office with him, alone. As nerve-wracking as it was to speak to him in front of people, it was even worse on my own.
He didn't appear to be uncomfortable at all. His jacket was off, his sleeves were unbuttoned and rolled up, and he smiled at me with genuine warmth as I stood in front of him.
Well, of course he wouldn't be uncomfortable. He didn't remember having sex with me. Or he did. I'd decided that him knowing my name was definitive proof, but it really wasn't. He could have just asked someone while I was out getting bagels.
He gestured at the sophisticated white chair in front of Gabriella's desk. "Have a seat; there are some things we need to discuss."
I held my breath. He did remember me, after all, and he was just waiting for the right time to bring it up. Now he was going to fire me.
"First of all, lunch." He leaned back in Gabriella's chair. I never realized it tilted, because she had always sat up so ramrod straight. "No red meat, no MSG."
I almost sighed in relief. Not fired yet, and as a bonus, he’d given me a somewhat specific request. I reached for the notepad beside the blotter and gestured to the pen beside it. "Do you mind?"
"Not at all." He watched me as I wrote down "No red meat. No MSG," on the top line, then continued, "I'll usually have breakfast at home, so you don't have to worry about that. I will be having lunch in today, though, and I need this - " he pushed a manila envelope across the desk, "- to the clerk's office at City Hall before closing."
I took the envelope and dutifully wrote "Clerk" in my notes, my pen hovering over the paper as I awaited his next instruction.
"That's all," he said, and I looked up to meet his amused expression. "I'm not a demanding boss, Sophie. I may need you to bring me coffee or mail something occasionally, all the usual assistant's duties, but I'm not going to send you all over town caring for my dog."
"Do you..." I cleared my throat. Someone had told him about Empress Catherine's frequent trips to the holistic vet. "Do you not have a dog?"
His lips quirked. I remembered that half-smile so well. Just like six years ago, I couldn't tell if he was smiling because he thought me utterly ridiculous, or if he liked me.
He'd smiled like that when I'd finally gotten up the courage to cross the seating area by the gate. I'd felt so gross and unattractive after my first flight of the day, wearing a faded pair of comfortable jeans and a black "To Write Love On Her Arms" t-shirt. I hadn't straightened my hair, just pulled it into a sloppy ponytail. I'd wanted so badly to sound grown up and world-weary. I'd gestured to the gate and said, "First time going to Tokyo?"
And he'd smiled that mysterious half-smile and replied, "No. But I bet it's yours."
The man before me now was six years older, with a few more lines on his face and little more gray in his hair. But he still made my traitorous knees weak. I was caught between hating him, and wanting to jump into his lap. Not my finest working girl moment.
"No," he replied, the tilt to his lips never fading. "I do not have a dog. Do you have any other questions?"
Was he playing with me? I couldn't tell. But the way I saw it in that moment, I had nothing to lose.
"Yes, I do." I envisioned myself saying, "Did you once pick up a girl at LAX, fuck her brains out, and take her plane ticket?" But my mouth seemed to be, wisely, in agreement with the part of my brain screaming, "No! No!" Instead, I asked, "Do you know when Penelope is going to be back?"
"Penelope?" He frowned a moment. "The other assistant, right. No, I believe, um, Ms. Winters has retained her services outside of the company. Or so Human Resources has informed me. One of my staff will take over for her."
I wondered if he could hear the rage building up inside me, like steam in a tea kettle. My vivid imagination conjured up a caricature of my head morphing into an angry cartoon boiler alarm. "Gabriella..." My throat stuck closed. I had to stop to clear it.
Neil jumped directly in. "Took her along." He paused, understanding transforming his puzzled expression to one of concern. "She... didn't offer?"
"No." I pulled down the front of my coffee-stained jacket. "No, she did not 'offer.' Will that be all?"
He seemed momentarily perplexed at my curtness, like he'd never seen actual human emotion before. Very quickly, he said, "Yes, I believe it will, Sarah, thank you."
Sarah? That was it. The cherry on the shit sundae that was my day. My career. Hell, my entire adult life. The woman I had thought of as a mentor apparently thought of me as office furniture. The man I'd compared every potential lover to for the past six years didn't remember having sex with me. Judging by the fact that he couldn't even remember my name, my job was looking more temporary by the second.
"Are you quite well?" Neil asked, alarmed.
I wasn't well at all. I was going to do the most dreaded, horrible, career killing thing it was possible to do at Porteras. See, I have the bad luck to be one of those people who cries when they're angry. And right then, I was furious.
When I'd first started working for Gabriella, I'd been second assistant. The girl who had been first assistant got left at the altar, and returned to work the same week they started shooting for a June bridal feature. She had dabbed her eyes a little too obviously, and within a week, everyone was talking about "Miss Havisham" the jilted spinster who'd had a total mental breakdown at work. I could not cry, especially not in front of Neil.
I got to my feet, and he rose as well. I backed away with a hand at my throat, desperately afraid he would try to touch me, comfort me. There was no way I could take that. "I'm fine. I just... choked on my own spit."
I turned and hurried to the door. How dare Gabriella choose Penelope over me? She could have offered me the job. Hadn't I been a good assistant? At least good enough that she could have given me a heads up before I'd been ambushed by the new regime.
"I know you must be very upset. Perhaps you'd like to take the rest of the day -"
I turned. "You're right. I am upset." I weighed the pros and cons of what I said next, and the meter landed directly on fuck it. If I ended up working at Cats Monthly, so be it. I looked him dead in the eye and said, "Crown Plaza. Los Angeles airport. That's why I'm upset."
The color drained from his face. I took a second of sadistic pleasure from his sudden and obvious discomfort. If he didn't remember me before, he sure as hell remembered me now.
And then I realized, nothing had changed. I had just blown off my job, but Gabriella wouldn't be sitting outside my apartment, begging me to come work for her. Life wouldn’t magically return to the way it had been yesterday, and I still had a latte stain down the front of my fifteen hundred dollar jacket.
I had never so badly wanted the floor to open up and swallow me as I did at that moment. Neil tried an apologetic smile, and when he couldn't keep it up, he looked away, out the huge windows I'd personally spot cleaned for smudges for the past two years. "Yes. Well. As I was saying, perhaps you should take the rest of the day. We'll talk tomorrow."
I left and closed the door behind me. I hesitated beside my desk, trying to decide if I should clear it out right then and save myself a trip. But that would require staying in the office a moment longer, and that was something I couldn't stand to do. I got my coat and purse and left without saying a word to anyone.
In times of great crisis, I can always count on my very best friend to point out the silver lining, to talk through the problem at hand, and to bring some perspective to the chaos that is my world.
Also, to do all that while providing much appreciated weed and booze.
"Whether or not he recognized you the moment he saw you, he does at least remember you," Holli squeaked out as she exhaled a truly impressive cloud of pale blue smoke. "And you didn't recognize him from pictures in magazines. Face it, Soph, it's not like you guys had some kind of lasting commitment and he forgot you. You were a one-night stand."
"I know." I nodded miserably as I took my next hit. "But who has anal sex with someone and forgets all about it?"
Holli nodded enthusiastically as she swallowed her sip of wine. "My friend Alexis! Like two days ago she was all, 'So there I was, bent over the kitchen sink with a vibrator in my pussy and my boyfriend fucking my ass,' and today I mentioned it and she was like 'I have no idea what you're talking about.'" She gingerly took the joint from my fingers and lifted it to her lips. "But she has mad pregnancy brain right now."
I shrugged. As soon as I'd gotten home, I'd changed out of my expensive work clothes and washed off my eye makeup. I should have felt much more relaxed in my flannel turtle jammies, but I still didn't know what was going to happen at the office tomorrow. I wasn't sure there was enough cannabis in the entire universe to overcome my anxiety.
Holli leaned forward, her huge brown eyes going extra wide, like she had an amazing secret. "What if... I went out and got us Chinese food? And pizza?" She raised a triumphantly clenched fist. "And a box of cereal."
So, here's the deal with Holli. She's super skinny, due to a metabolic disorder. Which means she has to eat like an elephant to look like a giraffe. It might sound enviable, and I did envy her, for about the first year I knew her. But then I slowly started to notice how often strangers would tell her to eat a sandwich, or assume that she was anorexic, just because she was thin and a model. I stopped saying stuff like, "That girl should eat,” when I saw a skinny star in a magazine. Because I had seen Holli eat. And it was comically disturbing.
"I'm not really feeling the midnight -" I reached across the back of the couch and pushed open the blinds. "Oh god. Mid-almost-sunset pig out. I do have to go back to work tomorrow, even if it is just to get fired. I think I'm going to take a hot bath and have an early bedtime."
Holli took another deep inhale off the tiny stub of roach that was left, then carefully put it out on the edge of the ashtray on the coffee table before reaching up to boop my nose with her fingertip "You got it, kid."
I peeled myself off the couch and felt some of the depressive funk lift. It had sounded fun to wallow in my pjs all afternoon, but now I just felt tired and bored and unproductive. Maybe while Holli was eating her way through Chinatown, I could update my resume.
Or, I could take a hot bath and drink more wine.
Look, I don't want to sound like a walking cliché here, but sometimes, the bath and wine are totally necessary.
The apartment I share with Holli is amazing. A two-bedroom walk up on Canal; one of the major selling points was the big living room window and access to the building's rooftop garden. The walls in the kitchen and living room were butter yellow, the floors gleaming dark wood. The bedrooms were the size of shoeboxes, but it was still an amazing place, especially compared to our dorm room at NYU. But the bathtub is the reason I will never, ever move. In fact, when I do, I will probably try to stuff it into my suitcase and take it with me.
It's an antique, high-back, claw-foot tub with gleaming white porcelain enamel on the inside and burnished copper on the outside. There's a curtain around it and a shower hose, so you can hop in and get clean quick, but today, I was planning to spend some quality time in there.
I turned on the taps and adjusted the temperature to just above scalding. What can I say? I like to get lobsterfied. I added way too much bubble bath and a touch of skin-softening oil then headed to the freezer to get another bottle of chilled white wine.
Holli was putting on her coat. "I'll see you later!"
"Don't go to that place you got sick from last time," I advised her, and locked the door behind her. Then my wine and I headed into the steamy bathroom. To fulfill the stereotype that was my coping mechanism, I lit the sandalwood candles on the small tray table beside the tub, and pulled up some music on my phone.
While Lana Del Rey warbled a dirge-like appeal about singing the blues getting old, I sank into the blissfully hot water and leaned my head back on the cool porcelain.
As I languidly swirled my toes in the hot water, the awfulness of the office that morning melted away. So what if I lost my job? I had enough savings put aside that I could pay my half of the rent and bills. If that didn’t last, I had amassed plenty of designer handbags and clothes on the job. I could easily keep myself in consignment shop money if I needed to. Nice stuff was, well, nice, but not necessary. I'd sell it all if I had to.
Maybe Neil won't fire you, I reminded myself. Yeah, you gave him a shock, but he seems like a decent guy.
No. Decent guys did not fuck someone senseless and then steal their plane ticket.
Of course, that guilt might motivate him to keep me at the company. Or a well-timed threat might...
I dismissed that one almost as quickly as I'd thought of it. No way would I blackmail someone. It just wasn't in my character. Besides, I had no idea how many lives something like that would impact. He might be in a relationship. He might have a family. What he’d done to me six years ago was jerkish in the extreme, but he’d left me enough money that I could have gotten to Tokyo if I’d wanted to. And while he’d been presumptuous and rude and controlling and horrible without knowing a thing about my life or my reasons for running away, it wasn’t worth it to sacrifice my own morals and potentially destroy lives to keep a job.
It was petty of me, in light of the very serious situation I was in, but I really couldn't get over the fact that he didn't remember me. I'd spent six long, frustrating years trying to find someone who excited me half as much as he had. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't imagined him doing the same thing, never able to forget me.
The worst part of it was that he still got to me. Just thinking about him brought prickles out all over my skin. It always had, and probably would even after he fired me. It was incredibly unfair.
I didn't want Neil. I wanted Leif, the charming English stranger in the airport. I still wanted him, and probably would forever.
My body throbbed, like it always did when I remembered that night. I pressed my thighs together for just a second before I slipped my hand between them.
"What do you want?" he asked me in my memory, his lips brushing my ear as he pressed me against the wall of that hotel room. My answer was always pathetically embarrassing in hindsight. I'd only had sex with two other people before him, and it hadn't been anything to write home about. I'd thought of the kinkiest thing I could imagine, and shyly stammered, "Um... you could... spank me? Maybe?"
Cringe-worthy, I know, but I couldn't change the past. My fingers rolled over my flesh beneath the steaming water, and I sighed, my eyes drifting closed.
He'd smiled, and I couldn't tell if he was making fun of me or not, I still couldn't, even in my own fantasy. "If that's what you want."
I could still smell his cologne, still see him unbuttoning the sleeves of his gray-blue chamois shirt. He'd been wearing a faded David Bowie tour shirt beneath it. It was like he'd sprung fully-formed from my eighteen-year-old fantasies, the hot History teacher who just couldn't help himself.
That thought opened my eyes. Man, had my daddy issues been that bad?
Does it matter now? I asked myself, my fingers resuming their busy work beneath the bubbles. I took a shuddering, shaking breath. I could practically feel the crisp white duvet beneath my cheek as I relived lying across his lap, clad only in my cotton thong. I'd wished for black lace back then, but only because I hadn't realized the almost painful eroticism of white cotton to men.
"Have you ever done this before?" he'd asked softly, his palm making slow circles over my backside.
I'd shaken my head, feeling embarrassed by my request and by how wet I'd already been, how incredibly aroused he'd made me during the cab ride over, and in the elevator, and...
I shifted my legs, slipping down further in the water. Oh, we'd discussed the rules back then, but I didn't need rules in my bathtub. My blood pounded, remembering that first hard smack; the shocking sound of it echoing off the walls, the stinging pain that had taken a moment to really set in. He'd soothed it nearly away with the same hand that had delivered the blow, then another had landed, and another. Each time, I worried I wouldn't be able to take the next. Would he think I was silly or stupid for calling the game off?
His long fingers had skated beneath my thong, pulling it up tighter against my aching pussy before slipping it down to my knees. Then another hard slap to my ass, and his fingers were inside me, two of them, roughly plunging in and pulling out.
I had been so ready, wetter than I'd ever been, my mind consumed with a steady chorus of pleas to just get on with it and fuck me, already. Maybe if I had known how long he would make me wait, I would have given up. But I'd taken every shocking contact between his hand and my backside, until my skin had been aflame and I was sure I wouldn't be able to sit down on the long flight the next morning.
The tight, hot spiral I was so familiar with now gripped my pelvis, and I picked up the pace, remembering how slow and measured his breathing had seemed in contrast to my desperate panting. He'd spread my own juices around my folds, stroking up, circling the untried opening between my cheeks. I'd pushed up on my elbows, about to protest out of modesty more than distaste, when another searing blow landed. In its wake the tip of his thumb slipped into my ass, and I hadn't been of a mind to argue with him anymore.
I remember one desperate cry, "Please!" and I echoed it to myself now, twisting closer and closer to the edge. He'd made me come then, his thumb in my ass, two fingers in my grasping cunt, the heel of his palm working over my hard clit until I'd exploded. Just like I exploded in the tub, my legs quivering and jerking, bath water sloshing onto the floor.
"Fuck." My other arm was over my head, mimicking the arch of the tub, and I covered my eyes for just a moment, to get my breath. That night had been incredible, but now I had to rescue the hardwood floor, and I'd just jilled-off to a fantasy about my new boss. I might have felt better for a few a seconds, but now I felt considerably worse.
And I still had to face him the next day.