Chapter one is live! You can read it, or download a .pdf version of The Boss, chapter one, HERE.
Or, read chapter one after the jump!
There are days that just feel off, and you don't know why until something momentous happens. Then you look back on your morning - on the coffee you spilled on your ghost white Yamamoto jacket, the persistent smell of garlic from the break room fridge, the lipstick you had on your teeth while you flirted with the breakfast guy - and it all makes perfect sense.
I was having one of those days.
For the past year and a half, every day of my life has been a roller coaster, so I'm usually ready for anything. As the first assistant to Gabriella Winters, Editor-in-Chief of Porteras magazine, I spend company time doing anything from ogling male models at a Calvin Klein underwear shoot, to taking a chronically constipated Yorkie to his monthly colonic. It's certainly not how I envisioned my career in the fashion industry, but I'd like to think I'm starting to get a handle on things.
This morning, I reported at eight-o'-clock as usual. On my way I picked up Gabriella's breakfast, an egg white omelet and Nova Scotia Salmon from Barney Greengrass - made specially for her ahead of opening every day except Fridays, when she fasts - and grabbed coffee for myself and Penelope, the second assistant. I came back to the office, set out the breakfast on Gabriella's preferred Waterford china, and ahead of her projected 8:15 arrival, emailed a copy of her schedule to all pertinent office staff. I thought things were going pretty well so far when I noticed it was 8:12, and hadn't yet heard a peep from Gabriella.
That was really strange. I usually would have received a breezy, borderline rude phone call from her by now, demanding something seemingly impossible. I slumped into my office chair, took a sip from my still scalding latte and choked, bubbling a bit over my lips and down the front of my jacket.
At least you got the drama over early today, I thought, shaking my head as I dabbed the stain.
Oh, I wish I had been right.
When Gabriella's car didn't arrive by 8:30, I started to get worried. When I called her phone and couldn't leave a message because her voicemail was completely full, I panicked. I buzzed Jake, one of the editors on the floor. While his line rang, I looked out the tall glass doors. I couldn't see the outer office from my desk, just Ivanka in reception, drumming her fingertips and shooting worried glances at the elevators. The glare from the fluorescents showed me the faint shadow of my own reflection, all dark hair and pale skin and what looked like two black voids for eyes. Creepy.
"Jake,” he answered, and I jumped. His tone was short, and I could immediately imagine the look of worry on his face. His big blue eyes would be wide, and he'd probably be leaning one tattooed elbow on his desk, a hand buried in his sandy hair as he hunched over his laptop.
"Do you know what's going on this morning?" I asked, rising to venture to Gabriella's gleaming lacquered desk. There was a fingerprint beside the leather blotter, which I rubbed away with my sleeve. "Everyone is acting really weird."
"It's not good, Soph. We're still waiting for confirmation from Bob, but it looks like Gabriella is out."
"Out where?" I squirted some hand sanitizer into my palm. As soon as it absorbed, I hovered my hand over the rapidly cooling omelet to check the temperature. Gabriella hated microwaved food almost as much as she hated germs.
"Out, as in, fired."
This is fixable. You call Barney Greengrass and ask them to remake the omelet. Penelope can pick it up on her way in if you catch her right now -
A record scratched somewhere in my brain, jarring me back to what Jake had said. "What?"
Jake hadn't caught on to my disbelief. "I don't know the details. But I think it's safe to say, Gabriella won't be coming back." He paused, and I could hear his irritation, not with me, but with every facet of this day, in his noisy exhale. "I have to go."
After I hung up, I wandered around the office a bit. Gabriella was... fired? Did that mean I was fired? Should I start looking for a job?
I sat on the floor beside Gabriella's desk and reached up for the china plate. I stared disconsolately at the weave of the low-pile carpet as I ate the expensive imported salmon my boss wouldn't be enjoying this morning. Oh shit, I paid for this on my credit card. They're going to reimburse me for that, right? I didn't know she was fired.
I mentally calculated everything I hadn't bothered to get reimbursed for this month. The only way Gabriella was out was if the magazine was folding, so would they be able to pay me? There was no way Porteras could run without her. She was like the single support structure in a badly built house or something.
I stopped chewing at that thought. I'd never really thought of Porteras in a negative light before. But Gabriella really had been the glue holding the whole thing together. In the sixteen years she'd run the publication, she'd only ever taken two sick days, and they were the stuff of legend. "The day Gabriella missed work for Princess Di's funeral," people whispered, with a touch of manic fear in their eyes. Gabriella taking an unscheduled day off plunged the office into a near-cannibalistic frenzy, apparently.
There was no way I was going out that door today. My cell rang.
"Sophie, what the hell is going on up there?"
Holli. Thank God. I clutched the phone tight to my ear and scrambled to keep the eggs from hitting the floor. "I have no idea. Gabriella isn't here."
I suspected Holli was headed into the building, based on the loud lobby noises distorting in the background. "Is the shoot cancelled? I just saw someone crying and carrying a printer out the front door."
"I don't know." Holli is my roommate. She's also a model, and today she was supposed to be at the spring jacket shoot on the seventh floor. By spring, would Porteras still be on the stands?
"Well, if this place is going down, I'll just go home. I have hours of Real Housewives DVRed that I have to catch up on." Holli sounded almost bored at the idea of the top fashion magazine in the country going into a tailspin. Probably because no matter what happened, she would be fine. Holli didn't have an ego about her job, and would just as happily do cleaning product commercials as high-fashion shoots. I often used her somewhat lackadaisical approach to her career to get some perspective on my own.
But right at that moment, I didn't want perspective. I wanted to run around screaming with my hair on fire, just like everyone else. "No, I'm sure the shoot is still on." Possibly. Probably not. "Go up to seven and see what they say. I don't want you to get in trouble with your agency."
"Will do, boss," Holli chirped, then gasped like a scandalized young miss in a Jane Austen movie. "O. M. G. What if they gave you Gabriella's job? Like, since you're her second in command?"
"I'm not her second in command. I'm her assistant. And that kind of thing only happens in the movies." But that left me with a very good question I hadn't come up with during my moping. Who would be the new Gabriella?
The doors from reception opened, and masculine voices drifted in. I shifted my phone from one hand to the other and balanced the plate of eggs and salmon on my arm as I rose on legs clumsy and prickly from sitting in one place too long. "Holli, I have to go."
I didn't wait for her response before I ended the call. I dropped the phone on the desk and slid the half-eaten breakfast back into its place, just as muted footsteps entered the room.
I smoothed down my black skirt and raised my head, trying to project an air of confidence that crumbled the moment I saw the man who'd lead the way into the room.
Not him. No. I knew him. Or, didn't. My pulse drowned out every other sound in the room as I took him in. A sleek, sharkskin-gray suit, no tie, open collar, so different from the casual attire we'd scattered all over that hotel room floor six years ago.
My throat was so dry I thought it might seal itself off. That was probably a good thing, because it meant I wouldn't be puking up eggs and salmon all over his shiny, expensive black leather shoes.
"Are you..." I watched his perfect lips form the words. Recognition flickered across his face and he raked his dark ash blonde hair back from his brow with his fingers. I braced myself for the impact of the words that followed: "Gabriella's assistant?"
Anger and mortification fought over which was going to send my blood into my head. I tried to will myself pale as I nodded. "Um, yeah. Yes."
He put his hand out. "Neil Elwood, Elwood and Stern."
I wanted to snap, "Yes, I know that! We slept together!" There was no way in hell I was going to say anything of the sort. Not if he didn't remember me. Also, I didn't technically know who he was. When we'd spent the night together, he'd told me his name was Leif, and that he wrote for a car magazine. Apparently he’d misspoken, because Neil Elwood didn’t write for magazines. Neil Elwood owned magazines.
"Bad luck," he said apologetically. It sounded much more polite in his posh English accent than it would have if some guy from New Jersey had just said, "Bad luck," about my losing my freaking job. His voice had caught my attention the day we'd met, and it did wicked things to me now.
I took his hand and shook it, ignoring the zings of awareness that travelled straight up my arm, lighting up every pleasure center in my brain. I knew that hand. Both of them. Had committed every detail about them and what he'd done to me with them to memory. I smiled with clenched back teeth. "You're telling me."
"Look, I don't want you to panic." I think that was what he said. My concentration had kind of a dreamy-around-the-edges quality with tiny pinpoints of blackout rage scattered around. It made it difficult to concentrate.
I can't believe he doesn't remember me. I can't believe I'm losing my job. "In the meantime, can you stay on here for a few weeks? You can train whoever ends up as your replacement, and we can find you something here that's a better fit."
I smiled in a really great impression of a human with a functioning brain and said, "I would be happy to stay on until you find someone."
I would also be happy to pay my half of the rent, which would be difficult if I were unemployed. Still, I couldn't believe how cool I was being about all this.
Then I realized that it was all going to hit me, eventually. My job was over. My boss was fired. I was probably tainted, and I was going to see it in the face of every person I interviewed with for the next five years. I might as well move back to Michigan and start working at the Shop N' Save.
I'd practically tied one of those horrible polyester aprons on when I realized that all was probably not lost.
"Great. We'll be meeting with the editors at 9:00, which is in about..." Neil or Leif or whoever he was pretending to be today checked his watch, which was roughly the size of a damn bread plate.
"Ten minutes. Look, I don't really need you for that, but what I will need is some coffee, and something to eat. Can you do that for me and be back here by ten, for the office-wide announcement?"
"By ten?" He didn't want it fifteen minutes ago? Wasn't he going to snap his fingers at me?
"Is that not enough time?" He raised an eyebrow, and I was sucked painfully back to that night in Los Angeles six years ago. Even the way he lifted a brow was ingrained in my memory, and he didn't know who I was. Just another in a long line of airport conquests, I supposed.
"No, it's plenty of time." Way more time than Gabriella would have given me. "What would you like?"
I noticed a subtle shift in the room. One of the men who'd come in with Neil - I hadn't paid much attention to them, since their arrival hadn't thrown me into an oh-god-we-fucked-before panic - coughed into his hand, and another openly rolled his eyes.
Neil, on the other hand, didn't react at all, waving me off with a, "Bagels would be fine, get enough for all of us."
"Coffee?" I asked, mentally calculating whether I could walk or if I would need a cab.
"Do they not have coffee makers here?" the eye-roller asked with a "tch" of impatience. I resisted the urge to narrow my eyes at him.
"Of course we do." I hoped I sounded cheerful and helpful. "Do you prefer Bolivian, Columbian, we have a great dark roast from Chile that was profiled last month – "
Neil took a step toward me, his hands pushing back his jacket as he slipped them into his trouser pockets. "I know that Gabriella was very particular about things around here. I'm not saying that I won't be particular about your work, I will be. But I'm not going to fire you if you bring me the wrong coffee."
"Very good. Bagels and coffee." I was fairly certain my frozen smile had irreparably damaged my facial muscles. Once I was out of the office, I rubbed my aching cheek.
It might seem odd to complain about a boss who isn't picky, but when you're someone's assistant, it really helps if that person is high-maintenance. Coffee and bagels? What kind of coffee? Cream? Sugar? Mug or disposable cup? If disposable, should it be 100% recycled material? My job was made so much easier by Gabriella's very specific demands. Without them, I had to make independent decisions, which went against every one of my subordinate instincts.
Okay, so I knew I wasn't going to be a subordinate forever. Someday, I was going to get promoted into a job I really wanted, and probably even have an assistant myself. But that's the food chain of the working world. You bring someone else their ridiculous coffee order until the day you can order someone to bring you ridiculous coffee. It's like The Lion King but without animal hair on everything.
If he wanted bagels, I could get him bagels. And I hoped he choked on them.
I stopped on the seventh floor, and I was unsurprised to find it entirely empty and dark. Which meant the shoot had been cancelled, and Holli had probably gone home. I got back in the elevator and headed down to the lobby.
I spotted Holli as soon as the doors opened. She’s not hard to spot. 5’10”, magnificently, naturally blonde, and wearing the most ratty, just-rolled-out-of- bed clothes that had ever graced the lobby of my esteemed workplace, she stood by the security desk, frowning down at the iPhone in her hand.
"Holli!" I ran at her, then remembered I was at work and slowed my steps. Gabriella might be out, but I was still her assistant, and I couldn't be giving people the impression that it was time to panic.
Holli frowned. "You spilled something on yourself."
I brushed at the front of my jacket. "Way bigger problems. I really have to talk to you, like right now!"
Holli followed me out of the building and onto the street. We hurried down the block and into a small coffee shop most of the Porteras staff wouldn't be caught dead in, because the drinks weren't expensive enough. We slid into one of the high backed booths.
"What the hell is going on upstairs?" Holli half-whispered as she scanned the menu. "Yesterday it was all, 'don't be a minute late or you'll be punished' and then I get there today and it's cancelled. No call to my agency or anything."
"Gabriella is fired," I whispered back. What had once seemed like the most important detail of the situation seemed insignificant in the face of my mortification. "Something... worse has happened."
I took a deep breath, ready to spill all the sordid and very personal details to my best friend, but the waitress stepped up to take our order. I waited with barely disguised impatience as Holli ordered the lumberjack breakfast with a side of pancakes. All I could think of was the rapidly gelling salmon on Gabriella's desk. I ordered a cup of coffee.
"Do you remember the guy I told you about, the one I met on my way to NYU?" I waited for the flicker of recognition to pass over Holli's face. Her huge eyes opened even wider. Holli’s face is like, ninety-five percent eyeballs.
"You mean..." She held up her hands, roughly ten inches apart.
I nodded miserably. "Well, he's Gabriella's replacement. He's Neil Elwood."
"Neil Elwood, as in, Men's Style Quarterly? As in, Who? Magazine? That Neil Elwood?" Holli's voice rose as she listed off the Elwood and Stern publications. "Oh my god, Sophie? You slept with Neil Elwood?"
"I didn't know he was Neil Elwood then!" I flapped my hands frantically to shush her. I didn't even know Neil Elwood or his stupid company existed until I'd gotten serious about fashion journalism. And yeah, I guess the pictures I'd seen of him had reminded me a little of the guy I'd slept with six years ago, but somehow I'd convinced myself that they didn't look that much alike. "Keep your voice down. That's not the worst part, okay? The worst part is that he doesn't remember me."
The waitress returned with my coffee and Holli's soda, and Holli toyed with her straw wrapper as she leaned forward. "How could he have forgotten? I thought it was like, the hottest night ever."
"It was." Wasn't it? Six years later and I was still thinking about him while spending quality time with my vibrator. But I'd also learned the painful truth, in those intervening years; that two people could have sex together and have two completely different experiences.
"Well, I thought he sounded like kind of a dick." Holli sipped her cola. "He stole your plane ticket, Sophie."
That... was true. And I often overlooked that crucial point, not because hot sex excuses theft, but because it turned out to be the best thing to have ever happened to me. In a way, I felt like I should thank him. "If he hadn't stolen my plane ticket, I wouldn't have gone to NYU. I wouldn't have met you. We wouldn't be living this super fabulous life."
"I wouldn't be so quick with the 'super fabulous life' stuff, if my boss had just gotten fired," Holli pointed out. "What are you going to do?"
That was the million dollar question, wasn't it? I sipped my coffee - it had a greasy sheen on top - and grimaced. There wasn't exactly an agony aunt column that could deal with this kind of shit.
I couldn't drink the rest of the coffee. I couldn't even sit still. "I have to bail, Holli. Are you going to be around tonight?"
She nodded as she swallowed. "Yeah, in all evening. Don't stress out today, okay?"
I couldn't agree to that, and Holli knew it. We said our goodbyes and I headed out onto the street. The sun was shining and the sky was blue. A beautiful October day in Manhattan. I hated when the weather refused to match my mood.
As I waited in line at some no-name deli to pick up the bagels, my mind drifted over and over that night six years ago. I'd met Neil - or Leif - while waiting for my plane to Tokyo out of LAX. I was supposed to have gotten on a plane to New York, to start college at NYU, but at the last minute I'd chickened out, and charged an international flight on my emergencies-only credit card.
He'd been forty-two, super duper old by my naive, eighteen-year-old standards. But he'd had the two things going for him that I most desired in a man. He was older than me, and he had an English accent. When our flight got cancelled, I spent the night with him, doing things I had only read about on the internet. In the morning, I'd woken up to find him gone, my ticket to Tokyo with him, and four thousand dollars wrapped up in a note that advised me to get the next plane to New York.
I'd been furious, and yeah, six years later, I was still pretty peeved about it. He'd had no right to change the course of my life that way. He hadn't even known me. But if he hadn't done that, I wouldn't be where I was now.
That realization made me furious all over again. Where I was now was soon to be jobless and working for a man who'd fucked me once and didn't seem to remember me. In a single morning, everything had gone from great to horrible.
In my ride up to the office, I made a resolution to not think about that night. Obviously, Neil hadn't, so why should I? I would not remember the sound of his voice, low and close to my ear, telling me all the things he was going to do to me. I would not remember his hands on me, or the feel of his naked skin. I would not remember my hands tied behind my back, or ice cubes on my -
I might as well have thrown the bagels in the trash and headed straight to the unemployment office, if that was my strategy. There was no way I would forget any of that, especially working with him every day.
Every day until you train your replacement, I reminded myself as I pushed open the doors to Gabriella's former office. Penelope still wasn't in. Had someone tipped her off? Had Gabriella tipped her off? Why wouldn't she have called me?
I rapped on the half-open door to Neil's office. He was already on Gabriella's phone, talking confidently about the May issue. I wondered if I would still be here then, or if I would see it on the newsstand and start crying right there in front of the box I would be living in.
Neil glanced up, then away again as he motioned me in. The eye-roller was looking through a rack of sequined miniskirts, stopping occasionally to pull one out and drop it on the floor. He looked up at me with pursed lips.
Oh, so we're going to play the "I don't know you, but I hate you already" game? That was fine by me. I wasn't best friends with everyone in the office and I wasn't about to start now. I raised my chin as I strode to Neil's desk and dropped the bag of assorted bagels and condiments neatly on the desk.
He covered the mouthpiece of the phone with his hand. "Thank you, Sophie."
I nodded and stepped back before turning away from the desk. I frowned at the eye-roller, who pretended he wasn't keeping tabs on me. Then it struck me where I had seen him before. In the pages of Vanity Fair, always at some party or another in the Hamptons or a trendy TriBeCa loft. He was Rudy Ainsworth, costume designer for the Metropolitan Opera, among other illustrious companies. What was he doing, pawing through Michael Kors minis?
That mystery held my fascination for about thirty seconds, until I had closed the door to Neil's office behind me. Then it hit me. He'd said, "Thank you, Sophie."
And I hadn't given him my name.