Or read chapter four after the jump.
"Your daughter?" I must have misheard him. I was sure I had. Because if his daughter was my age, that meant... "You were married? When you were with me?"
"No, no, I wasn't cheating on my wife or anything like that," he said quickly. "I wasn't married at the time. Emma is my child from a previous relationship. My wife and I have only been married for two years."
I let out a relieved breath. I would never want to help someone hurt another person that way. Even though it would have been far shittier on his part to have committed the adultery, I would have felt illogically culpable for unwittingly helping him. I was relieved to know he’d been a free agent at the time of our tryst.
Now there was just the problem of the bombshell that had exploded between us. We sat in silence for a bit, thinking our private, horrified thoughts.
So, Neil was a father. Of a woman my age. Oh no. He'd spanked me. That suddenly seemed more creepy than hot. I downed the rest of my water, and eyed my coffee resentfully. I should have ordered wine. Or hard liquor.
It was clear that neither of us were comfortable with this new development. I didn’t bother to retract my suggestion of a casual fling. It seemed to be a given that it would just not work out.
At least I was getting a promotion. And I bet, after today, Neil would avoid me like the plague, so there wouldn't be any future awkwardness between us.
I tried to find a natural path out of the conversation, and settled on, "So, do you have any other... kids?"
"No. I'd always planned to, but the timing was never right. And now, with one child who is an adult, I feel as though those days are behind me." He leaned back in his chair. "This is quite a mess we've found ourselves in, isn’t it?"
"I do hope you'll consider the position with the beauty department, in spite of all this," he added. I had no reason to doubt his sincerity. I couldn't imagine what he would possibly gain from keeping me at the magazine if he didn't want me there.
"I will." It was a great opportunity, though I had never really imagined I would end up working in the beauty department. I'd been strictly focused on clothing. Still, it was better than job hunting, and he was right, it would be too weird to stay on as his assistant.
Neil and I made small talk as we waited for our food. With our past out in the open between us, I had expected lunch to be interminable. After all, I couldn't run out screaming if I wanted that job, but with our one-night-only affair rekindled for five minutes, only to die a painfully embarrassing death, it was almost asking too much of myself to sit there and eat with him.
To my surprise, I found myself relaxing, enjoying myself even, as he told me about his interest in the magazine and some small changes he expected in the future. He asked me about NYU, and why I had focused on fashion, and it seemed like the hour we spent eating and chatting passed slightly too fast.
Neil picked up the check, "As your boss," he clarified after handing his black credit card over to the waitress. "Not as a former lover."
I laughed. "You know, if you're going to be my boss, you're going to have to stop bringing that up."
"I've thought of that, believe me." He smiled, and took a last sip of coffee. "Henceforth, we won't mention it again."
The car was waiting for us when we left the restaurant. As we pulled away, I asked, "So, this beauty editor job. If I did decide to take it, when would it start?"
He considered a moment. "I might need you to train your replacement, but I don't see why you couldn't start on the February issue."
I mulled that over. Porteras worked on a ten week schedule. The February issue would hit the stands the first Monday in January, which meant the content collection process would begin in a week.
"Take as much time as you need to decide," he said, as if he'd read my thoughts. "That's only an estimate."
We rode in silence for a few blocks. Then, apologetically, he said, "I'm sorry; I promise this is the last time I'll bring it up. But I have to know... did you ever try to contact me during those six years? I’ll admit; I didn't try to find you. I didn't know how you would react. Every time I thought I might look you up, I realized I didn't have anywhere to start. I'm not flattering myself by saying it, but I'm an easy man to find. Especially in your business, you're bound to have known who I was."
This was one of the bits I still couldn't get my head around. As confusing as the rest of the entire situation was, I couldn't come up with a single reason that I had never made the connection between Leif at the airport and Neil Elwood, publishing magnate.
Cautiously, I thought out loud, "I suppose when you were fresh in my memory, I wasn't paying attention to who was who in the industry. I was just trying to get through college alive. And then when I was actually working..."
I had seen his picture countless times, and clips of interviews. But I hadn't worked for an Elwood & Stern company, so I hadn’t troubled myself too much with what they'd been up to. I'd been so focused on learning how Porteras worked and trying to carve out a place for myself there that I hadn't had the time or inclination to look past our walls.
"I noticed that you looked remarkably like Leif, but there's something different about you in person than from pictures." Without thinking, I mused, "Maybe you just look different when you're looking at me."
Do you know what Maybachs really need? Ejector seats. Even if the only option for escape is to be flung into traffic.
We pulled up beside the building, and my hand immediately went to the door handle. Neil waved me ahead. "I have another stop I need to make, I won't be coming up."
I can't say I wasn't grateful when I shut the door and went on without him. The thought that he might be watching me slowed my steps, and I forced myself not to look back, even when I’d entered the lobby. I rode the elevator in a daze. So, one of the big mysteries of my life had been more or less wrapped up. I’d found my sexy stranger again, and things weren’t going to work out the way I’d sometimes fantasized they might. I was disappointed, but in a detached sort of way, like when a favorite television show’s plot takes a turn I don’t like. The world wasn’t going to crumble over this incident. It didn’t even feel particularly cry-worthy.
I was back at my desk for about two minutes when Rudy came through the door, frowning.
"Where's Neil?" he asked, peering past me at the open door to Neil's office.
"He said he had to make another stop on the way back from lunch." I pulled up his schedule and checked the time. It was two-thirty-five. A meeting on cover design had been planned for two-twenty.
Rudy stood beside me and leaned over my shoulder. "What is going on with him?" he muttered to himself. To me, he said, "If he were Gabriella, what would happen?"
"It would end with someone jumping out a window on fire," I snarked before I could stop myself.
Rudy straightened. "Well, that person is not going to be me. Could you let Neil know that I handled the meeting, and I'll fill him in when I get back from Betsy Johnson?"
"Sure." I pulled up my company email and typed the message.
Rudy was almost to the door when he stopped and turned. "I like the way you did your eyes today."
I didn't get a chance to say thank you before he was gone. I chuckled to myself. I actually liked people like Rudy. I view the whole "not knowing where you stand with them," thing as a challenge.
Neil and I crossed paths only briefly during the rest of the day, and I was thankful for that. The shock from my borderline poetic car confession hadn't worn off yet. Since he never mentioned his unscheduled stop, I assumed Neil had just blown off his after-lunch meeting to be driven around the block a few times so he could avoid riding in the elevator with me. Unfortunately, that messed up his entire afternoon, and he mentioned sheepishly that we might be working later than my usual six o’clock. As the day ticked on into the evening, I kept myself calm and on track with the promise of another hot bath – sans sexual fantasies about my boss – and waited patiently for him to tell me I could go home.
At around seven, he emerged from his office with Rudy and Hope Foley, Porteras's senior stylist.
"Sorry to have kept you so late, Sophie," Neil apologized. "We're going to dinner; will you be available should we need you?"
"Of course." I was dying to get home to tell Holli what had happened at lunch, but it looked like it was going to be a long night playing Bubble Spinner and waiting for my boss to get back to the office from a dinner meeting. Maybe Neil wasn't so different from Gabriella, after all, from a work perspective.
"You don't have to stay here," he added quickly. "I hope you didn't think I meant for you to -"
"Gabriella would have chained her to the desk," Hope laughed. She had always clashed with Gabriella, and was often the only person at the magazine who dared to push her contrary opinions. I'd often found Gabriella's calm reactions to Hope's impassioned arguments wildly entertaining.
Rudy laughed with her, and Neil did, as well, but I noted a distinct flush creeping up his neck.
"Yes, well, I'm hardly going to expect that of you," he mumbled.
Hope and Rudy didn't seem to notice his discomfort, but did I ever. I wondered if he had the same mental image I was having re: chains and desks.
I forced myself to maintain eye contact and said evenly, "Well, have a good night!" Then they were – thankfully - out the door. I waited for them to enter the elevator, then jumped up and grabbed my coat.
When I got home, I wanted to launch directly into my bizarre day, but Holli was in a state. A totally understandable, enraged state.
"Look at this!" she fumed, thrusting her iPad into my face. "Can you fucking believe this?"
"Ohhhh no." I dropped my bag and shrugged out of my coat as my eyes scanned the magazine page on the screen. A beautiful photo of Holli - her long legs rising like Grecian columns from a pair of Yves St. Laurent boots, her hipbones jutting from a simple pair of black lace panties, skinny arms covering her non-existent bust - was superimposed with the words, "How Thin Is Too Thin?"
"I did that shoot last year. I’d just had that gastrointestinal thing! Of course I looked emaciated. This is totally unfair criticism!" She handed the iPad to me when my hands were free, and stalked to the kitchen.
I scanned the article, but it was the same ignorance as usual. Models were too skinny. All of them were on the verge of dying from eating disorders. What kind of example were they setting, blah blah blah. Holli wasn't so famous that she'd become the target of stand-up comics' jokes yet, but I feared that time wasn't too far off.
Since Holli and I have been friends for so long, I've learned, through trial and error, exactly what one should not say in this situation. Trying to see the bright side in the career benefits and the envy of other women was absolutely unwelcome. Suggesting she might be ignoring some deeply rooted eating disorder she didn't even know she had? Even worse. Expressing my jealousy of her ability to eat a cheeseburger the size of her head and actually lose weight while doing it? That was the worst.
The best thing to say, really the only appropriate thing for the situation, was what I said next: "This is totally shitty."
And it was, totally and completely shitty. There was no reason for anyone to be judging Holli’s health based on her physical appearance alone. They had no idea if she was anorexic or not. They weren’t her freaking doctors.
"Look at the industry as a whole, that's fine." Holli had to raise her voice to be heard over the sound of the water running into the empty metal tea kettle. "But don't single me out. Because you know what that says to my future employers? 'Don't hire this model, or everyone will have a shit fit.' If they think I'm too skinny now, wait until I have to choose between food and rent."
I scanned the article. "At least they don't mention you by name."
"Which would be a relief if my face wasn't on the title page." She rolled her eyes. "Sorry. I'm just frustrated."
I dropped the iPad on the sofa and went to stand beside her. I put an arm around her shoulder and squeezed. "Do you feel bad?"
"Yes, I do," Holli sniffed in pitiable exaggeration.
"Do you wanna get high and watch Norbit?" I asked, pulling her into a hug and patting her back like I was burping a baby.
"Yes, I do," she mock-sobbed into my shoulder.
The ability to make light of our problems while simultaneously soothing our hurt feelings was one of the aspects of our friendship I treasured most.
We settled on the couch with tea and popcorn - you'd be surprised how well those two go together - and I put in the DVD. My news about Neil could wait.
We made it almost twenty minutes into the movie before Holli's eyes grew wide and she exclaimed, "Oh my god! I never asked how it went with the guy!"
I shrugged. "Nothing to tell. That's why I didn't bring it up.”
"Soph. Do you really think you're doing me a service by not telling me all the details? I'm in pain here; it's your duty as my friend to cheer me up through Schadenfreude."
"It wasn't that bad." I couldn't believe how easy it was to admit it, but it was true. "I thought we might... I don't know. 'Get back together' isn't right, because we were never together. But we did talk about possibly hooking up casually."
"Go you!" Holli lightly slapped my shoulder.
"I think we decided not to." I tried to break the news gently, but I could tell she was disappointed. "Turns out, he has a daughter my age."
"So he was married?" Her face scrunched up in disgust.
I shook my head. "No, he said she was his daughter from a previous relationship. He's only been married for two years, and get this, they're getting a divorce."
"Then you should have been in there!" She sighed. "Is that the reason you're not going to..." Holli slid her index finger through a circle formed by the fingers of her opposite hand.
I pulled a throw pillow from behind my back and walloped her.
"Do you think you would be comfortable with that? Having sex with someone literally young enough to be your kid?" I scolded.
Holli laughed and intercepted the pillow, fluffing it and tucking it behind her. "Younger. Once I'm north of fifty, I'm never dating anyone over twenty-one. And everything will be coming up Holli."
After our movie was finished, and I had gone to my room to turn in, Holli's response started getting to me. Maybe she was right. What was so wrong about dating someone younger than you? My dad had been younger than my mom. Well, by like two years. And I was looking for positive examples, not couples who had gone down in spectacular flames. Still, I couldn't see any reason why I should be grossed out by the age difference between Neil and myself.
None of that really mattered, though. Neil wasn't looking for anything serious, and neither was I. In fact, I'd actively avoided romantic entanglements since my last year of college. There was no orgasm so amazing, no surprise bouquet so sweet that it was worth risking my own dreams and identity.
Besides, I hardly had time for Holli anymore, how would I work a boyfriend into that schedule?
I hadn't even been home to visit my mom in a year. My heart absolutely dropped at the thought of what she would think about all this. She had once told me she would prefer to think of me as a virgin, even if I ended up with three husbands and fourteen kids. Of all the people that could have helped me navigate this situation with grace and common sense, it would have been her. But there was no way she would want to hear about the time I flew across the country, planned to fly around the world, without her knowing about it. And oh, by the way, I had sex with a stranger. In her mind, I had gone straight to NYU, after some minor trouble with a missed connection.
Boy, what a missed connection. I flopped over in bed, and turned my pillow to the cool side. Would sleeping even be an option tonight?
Out of habit, my iPhone lay on my bedside table, within arm's reach. As Gabriella's assistant, it hadn't been out of the realm of possibility to be woken in the middle of the night for a crisis with a flight or a sudden realization that we were about to run the same pair of shoes a second time. From what I'd already gathered, Neil was going to be a different type of boss.
Or at least, that's what I was thinking right before my eyes slid closed, about two seconds before my phone vibrated. My beside table resonated the buzz like a snare drum, and I sat up automatically, trained well by two years in servitude.
It was Neil's work number. I glanced at the time. Ten forty-five? Why was he still at work at ten forty-five, when no one else was?
"Hello?" I stifled a yawn as I answered.
"Hello, Sophie. I hope I didn't wake you." It disturbed me just how much of an effect his voice had on me. It was like whiskey, deep and comforting, warming my limbs and dizzying my head.
I was so intoxicated by him, it took me a second to stammer out, "N-no. I, uh. I was up."
"Good." I heard a noise over the line, an inhale interrupted by a catch, as though he'd stopped breathing mid-thought. Then he said, softly, "This would be much simpler if we could meet in person."
"Oh." I looked down at my lap. My face was scrubbed free of makeup. My hair was in a messy topknot, and I was wearing my flannel pajamas with the cartoon coffee cups all over them.
If Gabriella had summoned me, she wouldn't have given me more than, "Come, I need you." I would be lucky to get a location out of her, because she expected me to keep track of her schedule both in and out of the office. At least I knew where Neil was calling from.
"Look, it's going to take me a minute to get down there -"
"No, no, this isn't work related." He was quick to say it, and then a silence followed in which I swore I could hear both of our hearts beating like big, nervous butterfly wings. He cleared his throat. "Would you be terribly put out if I... stopped by your place?"
If anyone had ever needed a movie montage, it was me, at that moment. I could leap out of bed, dress myself with comical franticness, and when I answered the door I would look like Barbie. "Oh, this old thing?" I would say, spinning in my 1960's Givenchy inspired dress. "I just threw it on."
He could probably make it to my apartment in twenty minutes. I would barely have time to brush my teeth and clear up the dirty dishes and empty Diet Coke cans from the coffee table.
"Sure, that would be fine," I said, weirdly chipper. I was sure he could hear my fake smile through the phone.
"I'll need your address, for the driver," he said apologetically.
"You can't stalk me off the company database?" I teased.
It fell flat when he turned suddenly serious. "I would really rather not. That isn’t how I conduct my business or personal life."
I blurted out our address, already on my feet and headed to the closet. "Just don't drive too fast. I need to tidy up."
"This isn't a state visit," he assured me. "I'll see you soon." I ended the call and held my phone to my chest for a fraction of a second before tossing it on my bed and rifling through my clothes. Nothing fancy, just a black cashmere v-neck sweater and a pair of comfy jeans. Then I ran to the bathroom and set a land speed record for teeth brushing. I was just clearing the living room of some of Holli's recreational paraphernalia - he was my employer, after all - when the door buzzed.
"Yes?" I asked over the intercom.
I buzzed him up then cracked the door. We're a fourth floor walkup, and the stairs outside our door wound down a long central shaft to the small lobby. The click of the door echoed up the stairs, and my mouth went dry.
I heard footsteps. I heard his footsteps, headed to my apartment. Why was I so keyed up by that? I pressed a hand to the bare expanse of skin above the neckline of my sweater, and felt the flutter of my pulse there. I pressed my thighs together, then stopped the instant I realized what I was doing.
What the hell was wrong with me? I had no idea why he was coming over. For all I knew, he was coming to tell me he felt really bad about firing me, but he had to because he was so creeped out to be around me.
Then I opened the door, and he was standing there, and I had no further doubts. He had come because he wanted me, like I wanted him. I could see it in his eyes the moment our gazes met.
He was slightly out of breath, and cracked some joke about a higher floor being unavailable when we moved in, but I couldn't process any of it over the sound of the blood rushing to my brain.
Neil was here, on the threshold of my apartment, looking apologetic and waiting for me to say something. All my words completely deserted me.
"Um... come in." I stepped back, and closed the door behind him.
"I'm sorry to come by so late, but I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep without speaking to you."
So, we were getting straight to the heart of the matter, then. I had anticipated some uncomfortable small talk, during which I could try to feel out what he'd come to say. Now I didn't know what to do, or where to put my hands. I curled my fingers into the sleeves of my sweater.
"At lunch today, I may have given you the impression - "
"That we didn't have a chance in hell of anything happening between us?" I supplied for him. I thought it might make him laugh. It didn't.
"I must admit, the age difference between us does make me uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable back then, as well. I’m not the kind of man who needs to date younger women to be happy. It’s not a status symbol for me. And I'm not the kind of person who picks up strangers in airports, either."
"Neither am I," I said, maybe a little defensively.
His face fell, and he took a slow step toward me. "I wouldn't care if you were. What I'm trying to say is, this is completely new to me. I spent that night with you six years ago because I genuinely liked you, Sophie. You were so cute and direct and a bit odd. And we did have an awfully good time together." He smiled tentatively. "It does trouble me that you're the same age as my daughter. But you're not my daughter. And that night was... it was one of the best nights of my life."
I was about to respond with something pithy, but he closed the small gap between us and pulled me into his arms. My feet tangled with his, but he somehow kept us upright. Our gazes locked for a fraction of a second, and my mouth opened with a surprised gasp just as his lips met mine.