Saturday mornings offered Nick an opportunity to enjoy some quiet time in the usually noisy Teravelli household. His father and brother were downstairs in the restaurant preparing for the eleven o’clock opening. His grandmother indulged in an extra hour of sleep, so she would be rested to help greet the dinner guests that evening.
Too excited to sleep, Nick woke early, showered, dressed and made coffee. He sat at the kitchen table typing a new horror story on his laptop. The words flowed so quickly, his fingers had trouble keeping up. It had been months since he had felt the urge to write. He watched the computer’s clock so he would have plenty of time to walk downtown for the ten o’clock photo shoot.
“Nickie! Shave your face. You can’t go to church looking like a bum.”
“Church?” Nick peered over the lid of his laptop at his grandmother’s scowling face. “Oh, right. I forgot. The cannoli.” He closed his laptop and glanced at the wall clock. Eight-forty-five. Even with the detour, he still had time. The church was only two blocks away, although in the opposite direction of Ruby’s office. “You ready to go now, Nonna?”
“Almost. I put on my hat.”
Nick waited by the door, eyeing the clock. Fifteen minutes later, his grandmother emerged dressed in a rose-colored suit with matching hat and gloves.
“You no shave?” she scolded.
“I can’t stay at the church. I have an appointment.”
“This appointment, it’s for your new job?” she asked.
“Yes, so we need to get going, okay?”
“I’m ready. I wait on you.”
Nick steadied the stack of pizza boxes filled with pastries under his chin as he made the trek to the church with his grandmother. Although she walked at a brisk pace, Nick slowed his long strides to allow her to keep up with him. She stopped often to greet people along the way, especially children. A matriarch of the neighborhood since she and his grandfather had opened the restaurant fifty years ago, she knew most of the residents by their first names and doled out hard candies and shiny quarters to the kids.
A group of older women converged on the pair as they arrived at the church. Most were the grandmothers of Nick’s old high school classmates. The women stayed friends after their grandchildren graduated. They organized community events like today’s memorial fund raiser for Benjamin Ryan. Nick’s grandmother assumed the role of chairwoman for the group. She held frequent meetings at their restaurant and ruled over the committee the same as she did her family.
Maria Gonzalez, a short plump woman in her seventies, led Nick to a row of long tables laden with baked goods and glass donation jars. Business owners and residents manned tables around the perimeter and offered merchandise and crafts for sale. They donated their profits to the charitable cause.
“Mrs. G, I have to go,” Nick said.
“Let me get you some of my cookies,” Maria said. “Remember when you and my Raymond, were little boys? You two would come home from school and eat all the cookies I kept in the big yellow jar by the stove.”
Nick smiled. “I remember. But, no cookies today, thanks. I have an appointment and I need to leave now.”
Maria Gonzalez was his best friend, Ray’s, grandmother. Ray joined the army four years ago and had only been home twice on short leaves between tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Maria worried about Ray constantly. In his absence, she doted on Nick whenever she saw him.
“Oh, Nick, how could I forget to tell you. Ray is coming home.”
“That’s great news, when?”
“One week or two weeks. It’s confusing. Depends on what base he goes to and what flights they have. I think I have his letter in my bag.” She plunked her over-sized purse on the table and dug through the contents.
“Tell Nonna the date. She’ll let me know.”
“I have it right here. Where is it?” She pulled a coin pouch, a prayer book and rosary beads from her bag. The unusual-looking beads had multi-colored, semi-precious stones strung on a delicate silver chain. “My Mama’s beads,” she murmured as she kissed them. “I’ll find the letter. Give me a minute.”
“Mrs. G, I really have to go.” He gave her a quick hug.
She reached up and pinched his cheek. “Nick, you need a shave, honey.”
After pecking his grandmother on the cheek, Nick jogged down the street. He checked the time on his cell phone. Nine-forty. He ran the twenty-three blocks to Ruby’s office.
At three minutes after ten he burst into the waiting room.
“Sorry I’m late,” he panted. “Had to help . . . my grandmother. Fund raiser . . . for that poor murdered kid.”
Stephanie rushed around her desk with her finger pressed to her lips. “Shh! I told him you arrived ten minutes ago and were in the restroom.” She pushed Nick toward the closed bathroom door. The light and exhaust fan were on inside.
“Mr. Ruby is an absolute fanatic about punctuality,” she whispered. “Tell him you felt sick. Nerves or whatever.”
“Thanks,” Nick mouthed as she eased the door shut.
Nick inspected his sweaty face and dark beard stubble in the mirror. He splashed cold water on his head and smoothed his hair back with his wet hands. Smudges of cannoli cream and perspiration stained his black dress shirt. He scrubbed at the stains with a wet paper towel, but his efforts only made the white streaks more prominent.
The whir of the fan motor muffled the voices outside the bathroom door. Loud raps shook the door. “Mr. Teravelli,” Ruby called. “Are you all right?”
Quickly tucking in his shirt, Nick opened the door to a visibly irritated Victor Ruby.
“Mr. Ruby, I apologize. I felt sick. Nerves, I guess. I’m better now.”
“I will not tolerate lateness.” He glanced at his receptionist. “But Stephanie tells me you arrived early. I suppose a nervous stomach is understandable.”
Stephanie stood behind Ruby holding a clipboard. “If you’re ready, we can go downstairs to the photo studio,” she said.
Ruby patted Nick on the back. “Relax, son. Enjoy the photo shoot.”
“Thanks for covering for me, Stephanie,” Nick said once the elevator doors closed.
“Don’t mention it,” she replied, staring down at her clipboard. She looked up. “Seriously, don’t ever mention it. You’ll get me fired, or worse.”
The elevator stopped on the second floor and Stephanie led the way down the hall. Men and women in business attire hurried past in both directions.
“The photo studio is this way. The make-up and dressing rooms are attached. And a shower, if you want to freshen up.” She eyed his shirt.
Nick read the signs on the doors as they walked. “Ruby owns this entire building?”
“Yes. It’s a huge operation. Legal is on the first floor. The third and fourth floors are Creative Services. Fifth floor is Publishing and Editorial. IT and Marketing take up the sixth and seventh floors. Mr. Ruby’s office suite is on the eighth floor, as you know. The recording studio’s in the basement. It’s an awesome set-up, sound-proofed with state-of-the-art equipment. I love to watch the musicians record. Oh, and Mr. Ruby’s private residence is on the ninth. Takes up the entire floor.”
“I’ve never realized all that’s involved to promote people,” Nick said. “Are the books printed here, too?”
“No, only cover designs, editing and pagination are done here. Mr. Ruby owns a separate printing company.”
“We’re done.” The tall blond hair stylist nodded to the shorter blond woman holding a make-up brush. The make-up artist whisked a touch of powder across Nick’s forehead. Then the stylist swiveled the chair around to face the wall mirror. She leaned over Nick’s shoulder displaying a deep cleavage line above her tight, pink tank top.
“Don’t you love it?”
“Um, my hair looks the same, except . . . messier.”
The stylist rolled her eyes. “This is Gino Marco’s newest look. Very hot.”
Nick looked at her blankly. “Gino Marco?”
She sighed. “The famous hair designer, you must have heard of him?”
Nick studied his reflection. “Don’t you think a shave and trimming my hair might be better?”
The stylist ran her hands through his hair. Her breasts pressed against the back of Nick’s neck. “It’s the look Mr. Ruby ordered for you.”
“Ordered for me?”
The make-up artist hopped onto his lap and cupped her hand under his chin. “Why do you want to shave? Stubble is so-o-o sexy.”
The short, terry cloth robe they had given him after his shower made him feel both ridiculous and vulnerable to the woman squirming in his lap.
Stephanie appeared in the doorway. “Mr. Teravelli needs to go to wardrobe now. We’re running late.”
He politely nudged the girl from his lap and stood.
“Hey, Stephanie,” Nick whispered as he followed her to the adjoining wardrobe room. “Can I have a minute with an electric razor and a comb so I can neaten myself up?”
“Why? This is the look Mr. Ruby wants for you, Nick.”
“What’s with this look thing you all keep talking about?”
“It’s part of what a promoter does. Creating an image for the client. Mr. Ruby is very specific about the image he wants for each of his clients.” Stephanie grinned. “I think it suits you.”
Nick shook his head.
The dressing room had four mirrored walls with a bench and a chrome clothing rack in the center. Leather boots stood in a neat row beneath the bench.
Nick surveyed the leather jackets and blue jeans. “Where’s the shirts?”
“No shirts. It’s what Mr. Ruby ordered.” Stephanie fanned through the clothing on the rack. “How about these?” She held up a pair of faded blue jeans with holes in the knees.
“Seriously?” Nick’s pulse beat in his temples. “The Barbie twins in there did nothing but give me a lap dance for the past hour, now you want me to wear jeans with holes in them and a leather jacket with no shirt?”
Stephanie bit her bottom lip. “What did you want to wear?”
“A suit and tie or a dress shirt and slacks. Something dignified, like Joseph Cullen’s photo upstairs.” Nick ran his hands through his unkempt hair and paced the room.
“Joseph Cullen is like a hundred years old. You’re young and . . . cute.” Stephanie’s cheeks flushed bright pink beneath her freckles. “Why don’t I get you a drink to help you relax.” She slipped out the door before Nick could answer.
Taking advantage of the privacy, he pulled on the jeans she had draped over the bench. Balling up the black robe, he tossed it across the room.
When the door opened, Victor Ruby entered carrying two glasses. “Stephanie tells me you have a problem with my wardrobe choice?”
“My problem is this.” He pointed to himself. “I wanted to look like a serious author, Mr. Ruby. But between the wild hair, no shave and these torn-up jeans, I look like a homeless guy.”
“Homeless? Hardly. Those torn-up jeans cost over four hundred dollars.” Ruby thrust a cold glass into Nick’s hand. “Sit. Relax. Drink.”
Ruby settled on the bench and sipped his drink. Nick remained standing.
“How old are you, son?”
Ruby shook his head. “I employ a team of highly-paid, marketing professionals. Our research indicates your main appeal will be with the fifteen to forty-year-old female market. Do you think they want to see a young, virile man in a stuffy suit and tie? No, they do not.” Ruby took a piece of paper from his suit pocket and waved it in front of Nick’s face.
Nick’s eyes focused on the fluttering paper, a check made out to him in the amount of ten thousand dollars.
“What’s this for?” he asked.
“Your first advance. Our research maps potential book and merchandise sales. We have blind orders coming in simply because you’re the newest Ruby Promotions talent. Next week is the press conference formally announcing you as the winner of our talent contest. When your book hits the stores, so will the hard sales. Which translates to more money for me—and you.”
“Wow, that’s fantastic,” Nick said. “But, don’t you think a writer should look—”
Ruby stood. “Mr. Teravelli, you have a decision to make. You either put on the clothing I had hand-picked for you, or I tear up this check and you can go back to slinging pizza in your family’s dive.” He jabbed a tapered fingernail into Nick’s chest. “We have a contract. And I assure you, if you walk out that door any chance you have of publishing a book in this city walks with you. I’ll make certain of it.”
Although nearly a foot taller than the angry man in front of him, Nick stepped back. The temperature in the dressing room rocketed to a blistering heat.
“What’s it going to be?” Ruby demanded.
Nick muttered, “I’ll wear the clothes.”
The heat dissipated as Ruby smiled. “Nick, I realize this is all new to you, but you need to trust I know best in these matters. I’ve been changing people’s lives for a very long time. My job is to make you rich and famous. Your job is to do what I tell you to do. Understood?”
Ruby slapped the check into Nick’s hand and walked out the door. “Stephanie! Get this photo shoot done.”
“It’s a different look from what you’re used to, Nick.” Katie reached up and tousled his hair as they strolled hand in hand from the hospital to her apartment.
“Yeah, except it’s not me. And not who I want to be either. I wonder about Ruby. The guy’s pushy and very strange.”
“Lots of famous people are eccentric. Focus on the positive, you’re getting your book published. That’s your dream. And your own photo shoot is so cool. Plus, they let you keep the clothes.” She fingered the butter-soft leather. “This jacket looks expensive.”
“Probably is. Ruby said these jeans cost four-hundred bucks. They took my clothes. I got out of the shower and they were gone. His secretary said she’d have them cleaned for me.” He smirked. “My shirt was covered with cannoli cream and sweat from running over twenty blocks to make the appointment on time.”
“I think you look sexy.” Katie traced her fingers through the hair on his chest down to where it tapered into a thin line above the waistband of his jeans.
“Sexy, huh?” Nick grabbed her around her waist and lifted her up until her face was even with his. He kissed her and then pressed his lips into the curve of her neck.
Katie shivered and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Tara should be leaving for her shift any minute.” She lightly bit Nick’s earlobe. “We’ll have the place all to ourselves.”