Or read chapter three after the jump, and have a super Valentine's Day!
The next morning, I got up, forced myself out of bed, and promised myself that no matter what happened, I would not jump from anything taller than two feet today.
I dressed like I was going into battle, in black, high-waisted, wide-legged trousers and a sleek, structured, rust-colored jacket over a white blouse. I donned dark wood bangles like armor and did up my eyes in shades of tarnished silver. The contouring, my god, the contouring. I wore my brown hair in careless waves – the type of careless only someone who'd spent an hour and a half on her hair alone could achieve. And when I strode from the bathroom in a cloud of fragranced body lotion, Holli actually dropped the gallon of ice cream she was eating directly from for breakfast.
"Holy mother of cheekbones," she muttered as she licked her spoon clean. "Are you going to work looking like that?"
"Pff." I looped a skinny cashmere scarf around my neck. "I'm going networking like this. I figure I'll be fired by nine-thirty, I can at least go drop off some résumés."
"You're taking this really well." Holli picked up her bucket of ice cream. "Should I be prepared for the inevitable fall out?"
"There isn't going to be any inevitable fall out," I stated firmly. And I meant that. I'd done my moping around, but rather than let myself become a victim to a situation that was totally out of my hands, I would exert control over whatever aspects I could. I’d leave my current job gracefully and professionally, and try to get another as soon as possible.
"Mmhm." Holli nodded as she shuffled to the couch. "Just remember, Mr. Cheeba and I will be right here waiting if you change your mind."
I made sure I was out the door before she could light up. I didn't want to smell like weed at seven in the morning.
I got my coffee and my breakfast at my usual stop. It didn’t take the usual amount of time, though, which I really appreciated. The last thing I wanted was to be late to my firing. I caught an earlier train than normal, too. At least something was going to go right today.
The building’s lobby was still pretty empty when I negotiated the revolving door and flashed my badge at security. I got an elevator with no wait – epic! – and when I got to the office, I’d even beat Ivanka, the receptionist. No one ever got to work before she did. I suspected she lived under the desk.
I punched the time clock via my desktop computer and started on the totally not fun task of transferring all my personal files to my personal external hard drive. I’d also clear my internet history and wipe out my contacts list. I wasn’t going to leave a scrap of help for the new regime.
At quarter after eight, I checked my phone. No messages from Neil. Gosh, he really wasn't anything like Gabriella. By now, the sky would have already been falling, and crises would be raining down on us.
Whoever had covered for me had emailed me Neil's schedule for the week, and a list of things that had to be done this morning. That surprised me, considering I had planned on being fired and figured he was planning the same thing. Must have been an oversight.
One of the glass double-doors pushed open, and Neil entered, in a long, black wool coat that he shrugged off the moment he stepped inside.
I jumped up to take it from him, totally out of habit. I'd been hanging up guests' coats in the office for years; it would have felt deeply unnatural to refrain from taking his.
"Good morning, Sophie." His tone was totally fake and even, at odds with the uncomfortable way he tried and failed to maintain eye contact as he said it.
"Good morning," I replied, and I fixed my eyes right on him, feeling a mean little thrill of satisfaction. That's right. I'm refusing to acknowledge the awkwardness of this situation. What are you gonna do about it? "Coffee, black, two sugars?"
"Yes, thank you." He recovered impressively, adopting exactly the same strategy I had chosen to use: denial. "And if you could set the thermostat to around sixty-five, if it's not too much trouble? It's a bit warm in here."
"Certainly." I smiled my easiest, closed-mouth work smile, all the while sing-songing in my head, I’ve seen you naked, I’ve seen you naked.
He headed for his office, and I opened the coat closet and retrieved one of the gleaming wood hangers.
I stopped and turned. He stood in front of his door, watching me. I had won our little standoff. He was going to bring up what had happened yesterday. I guess I could have gloated over my tiny victory, but instead I just felt really, really sick to my stomach.
His expression was an apology written in human facial features. Something passed between us; an energy so full of weight and promise that it made the air heavy. My body went entirely still without my willing it to, but I wasn't tense. All at once, we were the lovers in that hotel room again, and the intervening events evaporated into ether.
And in that moment of perfect trust, when we could have broached the difficult history we had made between us, Rudy Ainsworth strode through the door and confidently deposited his coat across my desk. "Morning, Neil. Ready to save this magazine?"
Before I go any further, I should really explain Rudy Ainsworth. He was the kind of person who, through nothing extraordinary about his appearance, manner, or dress, commanded all the attention in a room the moment he stepped into it. He was short, slightly round, and had beautiful dark skin, but he wasn't super good-looking, just average. He wore tweed blazers and patterned plaid shirts with bow ties without looking like a hipster or a nerd, even with the thick black-framed reading glasses he sometimes wore. He was totally plain, but he exuded something that drew everyone to him like a magnet.
This morning, that magnetic effect was somewhat diminished by the tension between Neil and me, and we both seemed to realize that Rudy had noticed it, as well. I hurried to hang up the coats while Rudy looked with interest from me to Neil and back.
"Did you enjoy your day off, Miss Sophie?" Rudy had a soft voice and a faint, generic southern accent that I was about seventy percent sure was a pretentious put-on. It was obvious that the question was an admonishment, and I was supposed to try and ferret out the right response.
"Yes, thank you for asking." I wasn't going to work in an excuse for my absence. Rudy Ainsworth could think whatever he wanted about me, and it wouldn't hurt my feelings. I was getting fired today, anyway.
"I'm glad you're here," Neil told Rudy. "Can you come in and look at the budget they proposed for the handbag spread?"
I was instantly forgotten, and the moment the doors closed behind them, I dropped into my chair. I was almost dizzy from whatever had happened between Neil and me, and my relief at having been rescued from a potential labyrinth of passive-aggressive conversation with Rudy.
Rudy was the least of my worries. Now that Neil had left the room, I went off on an emotional bender, eyeing our might-have-been confrontation from every possible paranoid angle. Had he felt what I had? It had seemed so obvious in the moment. Was he still going to fire me? Had I imagined it all?
I went on autopilot for the first forty-five minutes of my day, answering the phone, falling back on the comfortable routine I'd been in just a couple days ago. I'd thought the magazine would come apart without Gabriella, but everything seemed so shockingly normal. Maybe I could keep working here, after all. Maybe I could snag a position someone else had vacated in a huff yesterday. Life might actually improve.
For the first time in a very long twenty-four hours, I started to feel like maybe my career wasn't completely over.
At around lunchtime, Neil emerged from his office and paused beside my desk. "I think you should join me for lunch. We have some things we need to discuss. Ivanka will cover any calls."
Have lunch with Neil? I had a vision of barfing up my still-beating heart right onto my desk in front of him. I felt a bit queasy as I got to my feet, which seemed to have been encased in blocks of lead. I went to the closet and got our coats, handing him his first. To my surprise, he moved to take mine from my hands.
"I've got it," I said as pleasantly as I could as I shrugged it over my shoulders. We were still at war, even if I had come to a sort of uneasy peace about work.
I followed him through the lobby, preferring to keep a few steps behind him, like I'd done with Gabriella. He noticed before we even reached the elevators.
"Could you stop following along like Mary's little lamb? You're my assistant, not my servant." He sounded a bit irritated. At me, or Gabriella? Or both of us?
Even though we only stopped twice on the way down, I thought it must have been the longest elevator ride of my entire life. I stood beside him, not saying anything, my gaze fixed firmly on the numbers lighting up over the doors. I didn't want my eyes to stray to my right for even a nanosecond, because I was certain he would notice me looking at him.
Suddenly, I realized how men must feel when standing at a urinal in a public bathroom.
We crossed the lobby, and I noticed people stopping to stare. Not at me, but at Neil, and why shouldn't they? The entire building was abuzz with the takeover, and people were eager to get a glimpse of the man who'd breezed in and ousted the feared, fire-breathing Gabriella Winters.
From the hard set of his jaw, I guessed he noticed the attention, too.
A car waited at the curb, a black and gray Maybach 62, and Neil opened my door for me. I gritted my teeth. When I reached for the handle to close it myself, Neil stepped back hastily to go round the other side of the car.
A partition between the front and back seats separated the car in two. Neil got in and used the intercom system to speak with the driver about our destination. I was just grateful for the center console between the two of us. It was nice to have a physical barrier there; comforting like a podium at a public speaking gig.
As we pulled away, I took a mental inventory of the car. It definitely had a better TV than I had in my apartment, and more real wood than all of my flat-pack furniture combined. It was also an abnormally quiet ride, free from outside noise, so the awkward silence between Neil and myself had been sharpened to a fine point.
He seemed about as thrilled to be in the car with me as I was to be with him. He leaned against the door and looked out at the traffic, his mouth a grim line. When he finally spoke, his voice was soft and pained. "I do remember you, Sophie."
The words took the breath from my lungs. My first instinct was to make some kind of quip to deflect him, but it was finally in the open between us, and there was no sense in running from it now. "You didn't yesterday."
"I've never forgotten you." There was a bewildered quality to his words, as though he couldn't believe I would think he'd let me pass from his memory for an instant. "I just didn't realize it was you, until you said... For God's sake, the Sophie I knew was going to go to Japan to teach English and find herself. I never thought I'd see you again."
"Never thought, or hoped never to?" I tried at a smile, to pass it off as a joke, and it all sort of fell apart, so I looked away, out the window. There were millions of people in the city I would trade places with in a heartbeat to escape this moment, and yet...
I'd wanted this for six years. Even when I'd been fuming mad and trying to use his money to buy a last-minute seat on that flight to Tokyo, I'd been more hurt and angry by the fact that I would never see him again than I had been at the way he'd left me.
"I shouldn't have taken your ticket," he admitted. "I did it because you were so bright and being so stupid... but it wasn't my place to prevent you from making a mistake. I didn't even know you."
I sat back against the very comfy leather seat. He was apologizing. I'd always imagined him apologizing; I’d just never anticipated he would call me stupid while doing it.
"I'm glad you went to NYU."
When I looked at him again, the weighty feeling between us was back. There was no mistaking that he felt it, too. I took a shaky breath. "So am I. It got me a good job. Am I going to keep it?"
He looked as though he would answer me, but the car stopped and the driver spoke over the intercom. "We've arrived, Mr. Elwood."
Neil exited the car, and this time he let me get my own door. I had to admit, I was impressed by that, but it was difficult to maintain any level of excitement when my job had been left a cliffhanger.
The restaurant Neil had chosen for us was a small brasserie with a sidewalk cafe still serving lunch outside, despite the brisk fall weather. The hostess smiled as we approached, and Neil mentioned a reservation.
"Not under an assumed name this time?" I asked under my breath as we followed the woman through the mostly empty restaurant. No wonder he needed a reservation, this place is hopping, I thought snidely, and then I was somewhat bolstered by the fact he hadn't taken me someplace super popular and crowded. That would have been a flashing neon sign that I was about to be fired.
The hostess led us all the way to the back of the building, past the restrooms and the kitchen, to a small private dining room.
"This used to be a mob hideout," Neil said cheerfully as he gave his coat to the hostess.
I unbelted my coat and worked on the buttons, giving the waitress a skeptical look. "That's not true, is it?"
She shrugged with a friendly smile. "That's what we tell people."
Neil moved to pull my chair out. I arched a brow at him, and he held up his hands apologetically and took his own chair.
"Mandy will be right with you," the hostess said as she handed us our menus, one page of crisp tan paper tied into a leather cover with neat black ribbon. Whenever I ate in a New York restaurant, I guiltily remembered the laminated cardstock at all the restaurants in my hometown, and I could almost hear my relatives telling me I was getting too big for my britches.
"Do you care for duck?" Neil asked, glancing up from his menu. "They have a very good cold duck confit salad."
I could have told him exactly what to do with his duck. "Are we here because you're firing me?"
He didn’t look up this time. "No. I wouldn't fire you just because we slept together in the past. I'm the interloper here, you've been with Porteras much longer."
The tension in my work brain eased, and I looked down at the prix fixe menu and weighed my options in silence.
"Do you think you'd stay on?" he asked casually as the waitress returned for our drink orders. I'm never sure what I'm supposed to order for a business lunch, so I stuck to coffee and water. To my surprise, he followed my lead. I'd thought he would order some fancy expensive wine or something.
I considered his question. It would be insane of anyone to want to work for someone they had a hot one-night stand with. "As your assistant? I don't think that's something I can manage."
"I completely understand." He set his menu aside and sat back in his chair, one hand toying with the stem of his water glass. "To be quite honest, I don't think I would feel comfortable ordering around someone with whom I had a sexual relationship. Had a past sexual relationship, that is."
His quick amendment brought a hot flush to my cheeks, and he cleared his throat while we looked firmly away from each other. The waitress came to our rescue, taking my order for a grilled calamari salad, and his for moules marinières, which he pronounced perfectly.
He could have just said 'I'll have the mussels,' I sniped silently. What was the point of sitting here, having lunch with him, if it wasn't going to save my job?
I realize I wasn't being entirely fair to him. He'd apologized for stealing my plane tickets. He seemed genuinely sorry that he hadn't remembered me. And it wasn't like he could control the fact that our work paths had crossed. We were both in a weird situation, here.
After the waitress left us, Neil began again. "As I was saying, I wouldn't be comfortable keeping you on as my assistant, but I see no reason for you to leave the magazine completely. Your coworkers speak very highly of you and your experience in the company. Would you consider accepting an assistant beauty editor position?"
I'm glad he asked me now, because if we'd been eating, I would have been choking on squid for sure. "Excuse me?"
"It's a bit of a leap, but Gabriella did put your name down on the list of suggestions." He took a sip of his coffee. "I won't pressure you into making a decision right away. That's not what this lunch is for."
Gabriella put my name on a list? With other candidates? Meaning, she didn't even see to my job security before she left? I tried hard to disguise my annoyance. After all, she had put me down as
a candidate for assistant beauty editor. That was a huge promotion for me, and a chance to actually use my degree. "Well, I appreciate the time to think... but what is this lunch for, if not to discuss work?"
There was that half-smile again, like a ghost of my most private fantasies passing silently between us. "To catch up. It's been six years, after all."
"Ah." Well, after I couldn't get on my plane to Tokyo because you stole my plane tickets...
I would have to let that go, or make my life really difficult. Six years ago, I'd done lots of stupid things I’d had no business doing. Six years from now, I'd probably be saying the exact same thing.
Clearly, Neil thought of taking my plane ticket as one of those stupid things he’d had no business doing. I could afford to be a little more forgiving.
"You know, we didn't really know each other before," I began, not unkindly. It was just a fact we couldn't ignore and still work together. "There's no reason we should feel weird about this."
"I believe that's unavoidable." He laughed, and the bubble of tension between us burst. I'd forgotten that; he spoke so carefully and always seemed to know exactly what to say, but laughed without a hint of reservation. The creases at the corners of his eyes deepened, and his wide smile showed his straight, white teeth.
The relief of the moment overwhelmed me, and I laughed, too. And once I started, I couldn't stop. It felt good to let down the walls I'd built up in the face of all my fears. I had anticipated getting fired, and that wasn't going to happen, at least not today. I'd thought that things between Neil and I would be weird, and they were. But it wasn't the end of the world, and I wasn't the only one suffering. That did a lot to ease my mind.
"Oh, Sophie." He shook his head, his smile dimming just a little. "I've thought about you so much. I was such a deplorable ass."
"Or Leif was a deplorable ass," I scolded, and found myself somewhat shocked to be playfully teasing, rather than truly angry.
"In my defense, Leif is my middle name. I didn't pull it out of the air." His green eyes met mine, and I didn't feel the uncomfortable urge to look away this time. He lowered his voice. "Did I ruin your life? Taking those tickets?"
No, he hadn't. He'd saved it, but I couldn't tell him that. It would be too much like excusing him. "I had a choice. You left me plenty of money. I could have waited for another flight, and I didn't. I bought the ticket to New York. I made my choice."
"And you don't regret it?" he asked cautiously.
I shrugged. "I do wonder what might have happened differently in my life, but I'm happy where I am."
"Good." He paused. “I've thought about how things could have been different, as well."
My throat almost closed off with the anxiety those words inspired in me. Did he mean between us? Or the way we parted? Or just that yesterday would have been so much easier for him if I'd spent it in Japan? "I have to be honest."
I absolutely hated when other people used that phrase, and Neil was no exception. Those words made me simultaneously denounce everything a person said so far as a lie, and suspect everything that came after. And that was a shame, because I really, really wanted to believe what he said next.
"I've often regretted the way we left things. And I’ve wondered how it might have been different, if we’d stayed in contact.” His mouth quirked, and melancholy lines deepened on his forehead. “I almost had the driver turn around and come back for you on my way to the airport. And then at the gate, I kept hoping that you’d... I don’t know, somehow show up. Or the flight would be delayed again. I almost didn’t get on the plane. But at that point I knew it was too late. I’d fucked it all up the moment I’d left that hotel room. If I could do things over, I promise, I would do them differently."
It's utterly bizarre how a kind sentiment can hurt you as much as a cruel one. My heart shattered in my chest. Yeah, I'd thought of what my life would have been like if we'd gotten on that plane together. Maybe we would have met up again in Tokyo. It could have been a Lost in Translation kind of thing, and we could have lived happily ever after. The fact that he'd been considering such an outcome as well wounded me deeply.
Which was absurd, I reminded myself. You knew him for less than twenty- four hours. Love at first sight doesn't exist. Though I knew deep down that I was mourning the idea of him and not any great love, it still hurt.
"Are you all right?" he asked, concern darkening his gaze.
I nodded, and took a sip of my water to swallow down the lump in my throat. Setting the glass back on the table, I said with forced cheerfulness, "Isn't it strange that we're meeting up again now?"
I realized the moment I said it that he would take it for more than it was, as though I were professing some kind of fate or destiny situation. His eyebrows rose, and he glanced nervously away, as if he were looking for a net to suddenly surround him. "Yes, well, I couldn't... get involved with you. Or with anyone, right now. I'm going through a bit of a nasty divorce."
"I wasn't -" I stopped myself. Better to forge ahead than try to explain away the past in these types of conversations. "I wouldn't be interested in anything, either."
"Oh?" Was that disappointment I heard in his voice? "You're seeing someone, then?"
"I'm not seeing anyone." I liked the thought of letting him stew with that, but it seemed too dishonest, and dishonesty hadn’t done us any great favors so far. "The truth is, I've never found anyone who... measures up."
And then, hand to God, Neil Elwood, billionaire publisher and entrepreneur, giggled. It was the most charming, teenage-boyish sound I'd ever heard from anyone over the age of twenty. Just like that, I was utterly smitten with him again.
I could either work around him every day and drive myself crazy, or I could continue on this honesty trend. I took a deep breath and stepped off the most insane cliff I'd ever stood on. "Look, this is going to sound... I don't want anything serious. You don't, either. But we're obviously attracted to each other, and now we're in this situation. If we wanted to see each other casually, what would that hurt?"
I swear I left my body for a second. I looked down on the scene with the most crushing sense of self-awareness I hope never to experience again. What was I doing?
I had just propositioned my boss.
I remember sitting in the back of the taxi that day six years ago, his hand on my thigh over my jeans, his low voice telling me, "Anything you want."
And like that, I came back to myself, and I was staring into Neil's gorgeous green eyes, trying to guess what he was thinking.
"Sophie, I'm your boss." My heart sank, but then he continued, "We would have to be... reasonably discreet around the office.”
"Absolutely. I worked too hard to get where I am." I frowned. “You don’t think I would do anything to get us noticed? I’m not stupid.”
He looked briefly puzzled at that then said, "You're right, I'm not giving you enough credit. I suppose I’m remembering you as that impulsive young woman in the airport. You were what, all of twenty-five back then?”
I cleared my throat. "About that. I maybe fudged a little on my age back His eyes narrowed. "You fudged?"
"Yeah, I wasn't heading to NYU for a graduate program." He was going to be mad. Really mad. "I wasn't twenty-five. I was eighteen."
"Eighteen. Really?" His normally easy speech was stilted and nervous, pitched higher than before. "So that would make you twenty-four -"
"Twenty-four," I said at the same time he did. "That's not a problem, is
Neil had been forty-two when we'd hooked up. He'd expressed some discomfort at our age difference back then, and that was when it had been less than twenty years.
He made a few inarticulate sounds, like he couldn't get his sentence started, then paused and collected himself. "It is a bit of a problem."
"Ah." When was our food coming? How fast could I scarf it down and get out of here?
"You see..." He issued a short, disbelieving laugh. "You're the same age as my daughter."