Schooled

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Chapter 27

A few days later I was back at work, and it felt right. Exams had been brutal, but thanks to my sudden lack of social life and newfound study time, I aced them.

Being in the New York office right before Christmas helped to clear away some of the depressing storm clouds I’d been under the last few weeks. It reminded me why I was doing all of this, which I’d desperately needed.

There was such a buzz around the magazine for the holidays. Though it was Christmas we were finalizing the February issue, and working on vendors as far ahead as June. The offices were decked out in fine form with a giant yet tastefully decorated tree by the elevators. My spot, a cubicle down the hall from Kirsten’s office, was already strewn with garlands and lights by the time I’d arrived. And working at a lifestyle magazine meant great swag—no red and green kitschy stuff in sight. Instead, silver and white tinsel with white lights shaped like tiny many-pointed stars. Probably handcrafted. No doubt the pieces were samples from one of the latest decorator collections.

I’d had a wonderful catch-up with Kirsten shortly after landing yesterday. She’d taken me for dinner at one of her favorite places, an intimate Italian restaurant in TriBeCa.

Kirsten was thirty-five and was the youngest Director of Accounts in the magazine’s history. To me, she was everything I’d ever wanted to be: glamorous, smart, and successful. She traveled a lot for work, but no matter where she was based, she gave it her all.

“So tell me about school,” Kirsten had asked as she twirled a glass of Pinot Grigio in her hand. “Has it changed anything for you this year?”

“Not at all. If anything I’m more committed to the label,” I said honestly.

Her eyes narrowed as she studied me. “Something about you seems different,” she said.

I wasn’t sure what to say to that. “It’s been a good year so far.” Parts of it had. “I’m learning lots in my courses that should help us in the next year.”

“I’m glad to hear that. We’re looking forward to seeing the collection and the plan, Alexis. I’ve been hyping it to my friends. So if you don’t mind talking a little shop on your first day back, maybe we can run through your presentation outline.”

“I don’t mind at all. That would be fantastic.” And it was.

Back in my hotel room, I’d almost needed someone to peel me off the ceiling. It was the lone high moment for me in the past few weeks. The one that made it feel like success was so close I could taste it, and like all the blood, sweat, and tears were going to be worthwhile.

* * *

I was glad to see my best friend. She’d arrived last night and we had a last-minute Travesty conclave in our hotel room but otherwise kept things pretty mellow. Tonight she had other ideas.

“We’re going out. You’ve been so bummed lately, and working insane hours. We’re all set for tomorrow afternoon. Now you just need to calm down,” she told me. Since we had both turned twenty-one already, we could legally get into any club. But, before that Ava had arranged fake IDs that had permitted us entrance to many establishments since we were nineteen. Still, it was nice to do it legally, and as myself rather than Alexis Bledel. The name had been Ava’s idea. Incidentally most bouncers had never watched the Gilmore Girls, so it was rarely an issue.

“It’s like a pre-celebration. And you’re wearing this.” She produced a gorgeous silk green dress that was fitted around the bust. When I tried it on, it hung loose to the tops of my thighs.

“How did I not know you were working on this?”

“It’s your Christmas present.” Ava clapped her hands together. “And you will look totally hot in it!”

“I love it, thank you.” And I did love it. The dress wasn’t the color of emeralds, like what I usually wore, but a pale mossy shade that looked like plants in the forest. It gave extra punch to my hair, making it look more copper than red. I styled it in waves hanging down my back just past my shoulders. Some black strappy sandals and a gold clutch pulled it together into something that looked festive and hip at once.

Ava looked stunning, as usual. Her dark hair was up in some kind of messy bun that looked like it’d taken hours. Pieces fell artfully down by her face, which was dramatically made up with light eye makeup and dark-red lips. Her dress was black with cutouts along the midsection, and it stopped well above her knees. With a pair of platform black stilettos, it showed off her legs to full advantage and made her look much taller than usual.

Since Ava would not be dissuaded from her quest for guys, she chose an upscale place that apparently catered to young professionals. As it turned out, junior stockbrokers and lawyers were a few years older than us but not many. It was classic Ava to show up in a town she barely knew and immediately find the hottest party.

She eyed up a few guys by the bar when we went to grab a drink. Ava was chatting them up.

“No one will believe we’re in such a fab place,” she gasped.

“Yeah. We’ll have to take pictures or they’ll think we made it up.”

“My brother said he’d stop by. He can be our alibi.”

“What? Ethan’s in town?” I knew he did some business here occasionally.

“Other one.”

It took me a minute to process. When I did I nearly choked on my martini. “Dylan’s in New York?”

Ava nodded. “Weird, right? He has some kind of engineering conference. He also said something about visiting friends from Penn State.”

Two good-looking guys in jeans and button-downs offered to buy us the next round of drinks as my brain rushed to make sense of this piece of news. Ava quickly jumped on that bandwagon and instantly we’d made some friends.

The guys were cute and very flirty, and dragged us off to dance. After one song I pulled away and told Ava I’d be back. I wandered up the stairs to the second floor, my mind wrapped around other things. I leaned against the railing, gazing down over the dance floor.

Dylan hadn’t mentioned anything about a conference, or visiting. But then, why should he? We weren’t anything anymore.

If I could go back, do things differently, would I? I wasn’t sure. But it was perfectly clear to me in the weeks since we broke up that something wasn’t the same without him. Breaking up with Jake, even after four years, had been a huge adjustment—we had spent time together most days. But with Dylan it was more acute, like a piece of me had been cut out. A piece I hadn’t known was so critical to my functioning.

The club was dark but there were pulsing lights. I watched Ava dancing enthusiastically with a different guy than before. It looked like she’d traded up to one in a suit.

I should’ve been having a better time but felt detached from it all. Like I was above it and not part of it. Which in a way I was.

New York was a one-in-a-million kind of city. I’d always romanticized about it, about the energy, the vibe, the people. But right now I wasn’t feeling like a one-in-a-million kind of girl. So, it was wasted on me.

The song changed again and this time, something shifted in me. I glanced over toward the bar and my gaze caught, held. My heart started beating faster than the techno music in the background. Before I could think it through, I was tripping down the stairs, whether due to my own clumsiness or the obscenely large heels, and up to the bar.

For once I had zero thought of doing “the right thing.” I pushed my way through the crowd and sucked in a breath, not the slightest idea of what I would do next.

“Come here often?” I asked, standing on my toes so my lips nearly grazed his ear.

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