Alexander didn’t return to the meeting.
I wished I could be with him but I knew he would dealing with Jake’s mess. I’d see him tonight. Besides, it was time for me to make myself useful. I wanted to prove I wasn’t just a bimbo with powerful boyfriend. I was pretty sure a lot of Alexander’s employees would see me that way, but I knew better. I also knew what I looked like: a gold-digger on the hunt for the ultimate sugar daddy.
I wanted to prove myself, and show the Skyscraper world that I wasn’t just a piece of ass. And there was more to it than just proving myself to strangers. I wanted to prove my intellect to Alexander, too, I realized. My intellect, after all, was what I’d considered the very best of myself, until recently, at least. Our relationship had begun with pure lust but had evolved into something much deeper. Sure, we’d spent most of the two months we’d known each other immersed in the throes of orgasmic ecstasy. But in between the orgasms and the foreplay, in the quieter moments when the fire ebbed long enough for us to talk, our conversations were some of the most emotional and intellectual I’d ever had. Alexander was well-read and academic, like I was. He got me in a way that no one else ever had and I knew he felt the same way. Still, I wanted, for his sake, and my own, to shine in this new arena. I knew I had it in me and I wanted to start right now.
As Alexander had requested – or, more accurately, ordered – Ashley Lynch led me through the maze of offices towards the Fashion department. Ashley seemed intrigued by me, but I was already used to the scrutiny of Alexander’s staff. It was only natural that they would be curious about their boss’s new fiancée. And I couldn’t believe how brazen his delivery had been: basically telling all the executives of his company that I had free reign over the place, to work wherever I chose. I wasn’t sure he’d lay it all out on the line like that, right off the bat. But then again, that was Alexander’s style: direct as hell. And sexy as all get out. God, the way he took control of the room, so swarthy and domineering.
I missed him.
We walked past the department I knew I would not see a lot of. There was one particular executive who I wouldn’t be working one-on-one with, now or ever. Which was fine by me. Political Affairs wasn’t really my primary interest. I’d recognized the guy, vaguely from the night of the poker game, which, to be honest, was a total blur. God, I’d been horny. Insanely so. I’d hardly noticed those other guys. I’d only noticed him and the way the touch of his mouth and his hands had completely blown my mind.
I wished he could do it again. Now.
But here we were, back in reality. If this could be called reality, that is. These plush offices and this dream job. Not to mention my evening plans. Just the thought brought a light heat to my skin.
“Alexander said you have some experience in publishing,” Ashley said. “Do you have any experience in fashion?” I’d noticed some of his staff called him Alexander and others addressed him as Mr. Wolfe. I wondered why she was on a first-name basis with the boss. She said his name like they knew each other well. I didn’t feel jealous – Ashley didn’t really seem his type – but I was curious. There was so much about Alexander I still didn’t know.
“Not really,” I said. “I’ve always been interested in fashion, but –” I could hardly tell her the real reasons. It wasn’t the sort of information you could breezily chitchat about. Actually, Ashley, I grew up destitute. For most of my childhood I was lucky to get a new outfit a year. I wore my clothes until they became threadbare. I learned to sew so I could stitch a length of old denim to my jeans so the kids at school wouldn’t laugh at how short my pants were. Would you believe I found that old denim in a dumpster? Old, holey jeans some bum had thrown away. Crazy, right? And get this: I used the one wool blanket on my bed to sew patches onto the elbows of my sweater. And then, once I could afford better clothes with money from my student allowance, I wore baggy, unfashionable outfits intentionally! I know, right? And a pair of ugly glasses I bought in a thrift shop for three dollars. My vision is actually pretty good! I didn’t wear them because I needed to. I wore those glasses just so men wouldn’t look at me, can you believe it? Because … well, Ashley, because of the way my mother’s boyfriend used to look at me. More than look at me, in fact. Much, much more. “—but it’s really only recently, since I just graduated, that I’ve had the time to dedicate to it. I’ve spent most of my time over the past few years studying. But I’m really excited to get started.”
Ashley eyed me, taking in my outfit with expert appraisal. Not critically, but more with the air of intense interest. Two months ago, I might have felt intimated by Ashley Lynch. But not now. The clothes I wore now were far more expensive even than hers. And my jewelry was in a class she could only aspire to. No, now that Alexander was in charge of my wardrobe, my bank account and my satisfaction on every imaginable level, I had absolutely nothing to fear from anyone.
Or so I thought.
The outer walls of the Fashion wing were almost completely made of glass. Chrome fittings and white tables gleamed in the large, open-plan rooms, giving everything a chic and magical glow. There were expansive views of the city in every direction you looked. Models and mannequins were being fitted by a team of busy, flamboyant designers who pinned and primped their models’ outfits with fussy dedication. Ashley led me into her corner office, which was sparsely decorated save for one gigantic white desk covered in artfully-strewn photographs, magazines and papers, and several racks laden with colorful, cutting-edge garments.
As we entered her office, Ashley managed to splice through my awe with a few well-placed, razor-sharp comments. As soon as she spoke, I got the feeling she’d been holding onto it, waiting to get me thoroughly alone to really delve into the topic she clearly considered juicy as hell. Her voice was friendly, but edged with something else. “You know, I’m a little surprised by the news of Alexander’s engagement to you, if you don’t mind me saying,” she said, and it was the first time I noticed a hint of a British accent. Maybe she’d spent time in London, who knew. “We all thought he was on the verge of proposing to someone else.”
A cool wash of … something, maybe it was jealousy, iced through my veins. Alexander had never mentioned a past girlfriend. “What?”
“Oh, yes. He’s been dating her for quite a while. Or, he had been dating her, I guess I should say. For around six months. I’m pretty sure it was exclusive. At least it was on her part. She’s a friend of mine, and, well, I can tell you she’s in a bit of a state about it all since he called her a month or two ago and broke it off. Just like that. Said he met someone else. That would be you, I’m assuming. At the time, he said he had an urgent, last-minute meeting in Paris. Poof, gone, just like that.” She punctuated the remark with a dramatic splay of her hands. “He’s talked to her a couple of times, in stolen moments, apparently. But he won’t agree to see her.”
“Oh.” All those phone calls he’d ignored. I’d thought they were mostly from Jake, and about other work-related stuff. Apparently not. I didn’t like the thought of him doing that, just leaving her in the lurch like that, if they’d been so serious. It didn’t seem like something Alexander would do. I knew why, of course. I knew how powerful our attraction had been. Like a wrecking ball of lust and emotion. A utopia of passion that had demanded total, immediate devotion. Still, I had no idea he’d been breaking someone else’s heart in the process. “He never mention any of that to me.”
“I mean, I wouldn’t even bring it up but I thought you might like to know. She definitely would have heard all the news by now – I mean, I had to let her know, didn’t I? – and she’s due in this afternoon.” She must have managed to tap out a few speedy texts during the meeting. “She works here part-time, as a columnist. We have a meeting about next month’s column. We’re doing a tie-in with the photo shoot she’s in, for the December issue.”
“She’s a model.” I didn’t ask it, just declared what was being implied. I was secure enough in what Alexander and I had together to maintain my composure, but none of this was particularly good news. My stomach felt just the slightest bit nauseous at the revelations that were being pleasantly unveiled.
“Yes. One of the top earners of the year. I’m sure you’ve heard of her. Shawna Beale.”
“Shawna Beale.” Of course I’d heard of her. Her face was everywhere. It seemed amazing, suddenly, that I didn’t know about it already. That I hadn’t come across some headline online or seen a picture of the two of them out on the town, in some magazine social page: CEO of Skyscraper Dating Supermodel Employee Columnist. No doubt if it had occurred to me to google Alexander I would have found all this out. But it never had occurred to me. I’d been busy, in the moment, with him.
Ashley’s face eased into an ironic half-smile that didn’t flatter her. “I have a feeling Alexander doesn’t know Shawna will be coming in this afternoon. Otherwise he might not have assigned me to be your chaperone for today.”
Ashley Lynch was starting to rub me the wrong way. I could handle the fact that she though of herself as my ‘chaperone’, like I was a child she’d been given the burden of babysitting for the day. I could look past her deliberate omission of this potentially-volatile information: that Shawna Beale and I would meet, that Shawna would be pissed off at Alexander and therefore by proxy at me, and that Alexander was completely unaware of the confrontation that was about to take place. Alexander would have known I’d run into her eventually, though, and I felt mildly pissed off at him about this, that he hadn’t prepared me, maybe just given me a heads-up.
I guess I could give Ashley some credit here: she was looking out for the interests of her friend, who would want to meet Alexander’s new fiancée. And she was giving me due warning that I might have a jealous psycho on my hands. Welcome to Skyscraper.
“I mean, I would have filled him in on the schedule,” she said quickly, “but I know he has a lot on his plate right now. What with Jake’s … issues.”
She sure did know a lot about Alexander and his problems. More than I did, in fact.
Her smile mellowed to one that could have been mistaken for genuine. “I’m sure we can handle it, though, don’t you think? I mean, you’ve got the ring – and wow, is all I can say – so there’s hardly anything to worry about. Shawna will get over it. I’ve already told her to move on. Plenty more fish in the sea and all that, right?”
I contemplated her, almost wishing I’d opted for some mentoring in the Political Affairs offices instead. The Fashion department was equally rife with drama, apparently. And I was getting the feeling any realm that involved the influences and echoes Alexander Wolfe was going to be rife with drama. Even so, I missed him so much that the heated beat of my heart ached with it. I wanted to talk to him, to ask him about … why. Why hadn’t he told me about her, if it had been that serious? And how could he just ditch her like that, over the phone and so coldly? It also occurred to me that during my job interview, and for the few days after, he would have been cheating on her, with me. Had he been so overcome with passion that nothing else had occurred to him – not his relationship or his fidelity or his honesty – nothing but getting as down and dirty as possible, with me, immediately, with no consideration of consequences of any kind whatsoever?
I knew the answer to that question: yes. Just as nothing else had occurred to me.
I needed to talk to him.
But Ashley was right: Alexander was busy. He had serious business to attend to and he needed to focus. The last thing he needed right now was a cat fight.
Before I could even respond to Ashley’s rhetorical question, someone walked in. I recognized her face immediately. From a thousand photographs.
“Oh, look,” said Ashley. “She’s early.”
Shawna Beale stood there looking like she’d stepped off the cover of Vogue, which she probably had. Her long, dark hair gleamed with silky perfection. Her slim, practically-emaciated frame showcased her couture white pantsuit in a way only a fashion model could pull off. Her pale skin was flawless, her red lips bee-stung. And her eyes, black as coal, rimmed with kohl and spidery eyelashes, fixed themselves onto me with demonic intensity. “Is this her?” she asked, as though I was brainless, a rival mannequin.
Ashley was enjoying the moment. “Lila, meet Shawna Beale. Shawna, Lila Carmichael.”
“I wish I could say it was a pleasure,” Shawna said coolly. Her eyes darted to the ring on my finger, which caused a slight pinkening of her cheeks. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but her eyes darkened even more than the midnight black they’d already been.
What else could I do? It’s one of my weaknesses: I can’t help sympathizing with people, no matter how bitchy or possibly rightfully angry they might be. I was used to being looked down on, after all my years of hiding behind frumpy clothes and junkshop glasses. I knew what it felt like to be on the lowest rungs of the social ladder. Now that I was beyond the ladder altogether and somewhere up among the stars, it was harder to get my bearings. This vantage point was still so new.
“It’s nice to meet you, Shawna. Ashley was just telling me about your amazing career.” I almost said I’m so jealous, but then, that might come across as catty, or even cruel.
She eyed me, taken aback by my friendliness. I could see her confusion flickering: Is she serious, dumb, or just being a total bitch? She couldn’t quite tell.
So I kept talking. “Ashley’s been kind enough to offer to show me the ropes today, since I’m new here at Skyscraper.” Since Alexander is busy wanted out, but I kept it in, desperately trying to navigate the choppy unpredictability of these waters. “Your column sounds so interesting.”
I genuinely didn’t feel any resentment towards her. I’d never expected Alexander not to have a past. He was obviously a very experienced lover. I guess I hadn’t expected his past to be so … recent and so suddenly present. But I couldn’t quite summon that first flash of jealousy I’d felt when Ashley had cheerfully informed me about Shawna’s immanent arrival. It was true, after all, what Ashley had said: you’ve got the ring. And I had no doubt about Alexander’s unwavering commitment to me.
Still, I couldn’t help wondering what he would do – and say – now, if he’d happened to walk in.
“How old are you?” she blurted out, studying my face from her small, cold distance, for clues.
I almost lied. But my age shouldn’t feel like a crime I’d committed. Or a blight on Alexander’s character. I had nothing to hide from Shawna Beale. “Twenty.”
To this, Shawna laughed, the sound brittle, like shattering ice. “Of course you are.”
Not knowing exactly how to respond to this, I didn’t reply.
“And how did you two meet? Wait, let me guess: at a bar. But then, you’re not old enough to drink! So that couldn’t be it. Tell me, please. I’m dying to know.”
“I applied for a job, as his assistant.”
She laughed again. “Of course you did! Don’t tell me: you got the job.”
“Uh, …yes.” Sort of. The details of my appointment have changed slightly, though, since the engagement. Quite drastically, in fact. From assistant to business partner. Plus I get to fuck him whenever I feel like it. Just this morning – you won’t believe this! – I sucked him off right there in the boardroom. God, he was so big and so beautiful. He came so unbelievably hard. Down girl, I reprimanded myself. It would hardly help to rub salt in her wounds.
At this, Shawna’s faux-humor evaporated altogether. She looked unsettled. Sad. I felt bad about it: that I’d somehow caused this. I had the urge to comfort her, even though my instincts pulsed with warning: whatever I said to her would piss her off, obviously, and probably do more to provoke her than soothe her. Still, I wanted to try. “I’m sorry about the way it’s turned out, Shawna. I swear, I never knew he was … involved with anyone else.”
In truth, it wouldn’t have mattered, even if I had known. I felt a little guilty about that. Alexander, on the other hand, had known. He’d known, even as … he’d peeled off my clothes, as I’d rubbed myself against him, wetting him with my own desire, as he’d sunk himself into me so possessively, so immensely and completely … that he was cheating on Shawna. It hadn’t mattered to him. I understood. I felt a little guilty about that, too. I couldn’t have explained it to her, nor did I want to, but I understood. By then, even though Alexander and I had only known each other for a very short time, we’d been fully, totally immersed in each other. Attuned and addicted. Irrationally so. We’d been ludicrously abandoned about it all. Crazy. But that’s just how it had been, and how it was. Then and now.
Ashley closed the door of her office, and this felt ominous. Like things were about to happen she’d prefer to keep from the public eye. It was true that Shawna’s face had turned a darker shade of pink, the hue creeping up her neck like a livid stain. “You fucking bitch!” she yelped, actually stamping one perfectly-shod foot.
It might have been true. Maybe I was a bitch, for loving him, for wanting him so much. For diving in without checking first. But I knew I couldn’t have stopped myself. He’d been – and was – so ridiculously, beautifully alluring. All I’d been able to comprehend was this: I want him. More than I’d wanted safety, or guarantees. Now, my feelings were a thousand times more potent. I loved Alexander more than I’d ever loved anyone or anything in the entire course of my life. He was my haven. He was the one and only person I had ever known in this stormy, daunting, lonely life that had made me feel alive. In some weird way, I felt like Alexander introduced me to myself. To the me that was allowed to breathe and thrive andfeel, without fear. Without that stomach-curling panic that had lodged itself into my soul at a very early age and never, ever let go. Alexander had unfurled all that fear. He’d begun to fix it. Just with the big, staunch, growly glow of his instant lust, his blooming love and his all-encompassing protection.
I wasn’t about to give him up.
“Shawna –” I began. But where to begin? How to explain? Would it even matter?
It turned out Shawna wasn’t intending to give him up either, not without one hell of a bitch session. The extent of her vitriol took me a little off-guard. I might have been expecting jealousy but I hadn’t been expecting this seething, dragon-like fury. “Don’t talk to me, you gold-digging fucking whore! You seduced him! You fucking stole him! He was supposed to propose to me! He was going to, before you came along and fucked everything up!” I half-expected a molten sea of hellfire to erupt out of her mouth.
“Shawna,” Ashley attempted in a restful voice. “There’s a time and place for this discussion and it’s probably not here, or now.” Wise words. Words that had absolutely zero impact on Shawna.
“You fucking seduced him with your twenty-year old moves and your bouncy fucking tits and your blond fucking hair!”
Wow. I could’ve interjected that my ‘moves’ were non-existent, but that wasn’t entirely true. Alexander had inspired moves in me that might have put a trained, experience concubine to shame. I didn’t mention this.
“You’re just after him for his money!” Shawna screeched. “I know your type! You’re the type who comes from nothing and instead of working her way up through your own talents you glom onto some super-rich guy and bleed him dry! I know exactly what you’re fucking up to! You won’t get away with this!”
I’ll admit it, the accusation stung. Some tiny corner of my conscience flinched.
“You’re sucking him in with your young face and that … that body! Blinding him to who you really are with sex and blow jobs! Admit it! What else do you have to offer him besides sex? Nothing, that’s what! Nothing!”
I couldn’t help but consider it. What did I have to offer Alexander besides sex? Besides love and devotion and … amazingly hot sex? Was that enough?
“Shawna –” Ashley tried again.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Shawna shrieked. “I’m almost done with her! But I’m not done with him! There’s no fucking way I’m done with him! I’m going to tell him everything! I’m going to expose you for what you are, you man-stealing bitch! I’m going to expose you and your lies and show him what you really are: a gold-digging goddamn whore!”
It did: it stung. A lot. It hurt. Shawna would confront Alexander, now that he was back at work, at her very first opportunity. She’d track him down and lay all this out. Would it sway him? Would he believe her and see me in a different light? I felt the horrible prick of tears at the back of my eyes. I knew I shouldn’t let her words affect me like this. I knew he loved me and I knew how I felt about him. My words came out sounding steadier than I felt. “I love him.”
She stared at me, her anger ballooning silently before it viciously spewed out once again. “I loved him! I still love him! And you stole him right out from under me, you fucking underage bitch! Did you know we’d been dating for six months? Did you? Did you know we had a date planned for that night – the night he met you? And that he never even showed? He just left me sitting in that restaurant waiting for him! Never bothering to even fucking call! I have never, ever been stood up before! Not once! Never in my whole goddamned life! Do you know how fucking humiliating that is? How fucking heart-breaking?”
“No.” I hadn’t even meant to say it. But it was true: I had no idea how it felt to be stood up. I’d never had a date that I might have been stood up in. Before Alexander, I’d been hiding, for years, from my own fears and haunted memories. I had no idea.
My answer only seemed to inflame her even more. Her face was a mask of fury but her volume eased into a menacing purr. “Did he tell you that we’d talked about a ring? And where we’d honeymoon? Did he tell you that? Did he tell you that he … he told me he loved me? He’s mine and you stole him! And I’m not giving him up! Once we talk things through, he’ll change his mind about you. You’ll see. He’ll come back to me.”
With that, horrifyingly, Shawna burst into tears. It was awful, seeing this confident, gorgeous, world-wise woman break down, all her jet-setting supermodeldom falling apart into a sobbing, nose-blowing hot mess.
I wished I could comfort her, pat her shoulder or something, but that would clearly be a bad idea. And Ashley was ushering her to an ergonomic leather office chair, sitting her down, handing her some tissues pulled stridently from a pink box.
Shawna blew her nose in a loud, un-supermodelish honk.
“I really am sorry,” I said awkwardly. I was. I was sorry she had suffered even if I wasn’t sorry he was mine. And I didn’t want to do this anymore. He was mine, that’s all there was to it. I wasn’t sharing and I wasn’t giving him up. “Maybe I should go.”
“No.” Shawna stood up, regaining her composure abruptly, checking her blotchy face in a silver compact she pulled from her designer handbag. “I’m going. Ashley, we’ll talk about the column later. I’ll call you and email you an outline. I’m in no state to do it now, especially with her here.”
Shawna strode elegantly towards the door, like she was on a catwalk. Before she opened it she turned and uttered a scalding hiss, “This is not over. I haven’t made it to where I am by being a quitter. You might have sunk your claws into him with your skanky charms, but he’ll tire of meaningless sex soon enough. You’ll see.”
She slammed the door behind her, leaving an empty echo in her wake.
I exhaled slowly, wishing things could be easy, for once. But they never were. Except when Alexander and I were alone, shut away from the world and all its manic demands for strength.
Ashley was surprisingly sympathetic. “Honey, she’s a supermodel. It’s all drama with them. I love her to death but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you’ve got the ring. Believe you me, she worked it with everything she had but in the end she never quite managed to get that bling on her finger. Alexander doesn’t just hand out a Tiffany rock like that one without wanting it right where it is. Plenty of girls have tried, trust me on that.”
I suddenly felt a little exhausted. I’ll admit my first impression of Ashley Lynch hadn’t been especially positive, but now I could see she’d been gearing up for the melodrama she clearly knew was coming. Now, she seemed to understand that my emotions had been shaken to the core. She picked up the phone. “Emma, we need two skim double-shot lattes and four Godiva dark chocolates. And bring me the specs for the Hell’s Kitchen hobo shoot.”
She hung up the phone and motioned for me to sit. “Now. Rule number one at Skyscraper: when you’re at work you’re at work. We’re type-A geniuses with big balls and thick skins, or we wouldn’t be here. You must have some of that in you, girl, or you wouldn’t be here either. You put yourself through Princeton in three years and you landed Alexander Wolfe. Now show me some of what you got.”
For the next six hours, I was ordered to put all emotional baggage to the side and concentrate on getting shit done. Ashley strode and organized and whisked us around the department, leaving no stone unturned, no base untouched, until I felt like I’d been mentored within in an inch of my life. I met photographers, editors-at-large, writers, designers, talent scouts, models, and underlings of every description, many of which had no idea I was Alexander’s fiancée, or even cared, which was totally refreshing after the morning’s events. I learned why Ashley Lynch was considered the best fashion editor in New York. She was brilliant at her job and it was fascinating to watch her orchestrate chaos into gleaming, high-end glamor.
In those passing moments when I was able to put Shawna’s wrath, Jake’s impending incarceration, and even Alexander’s beauty – and misconduct, if it could be considered that – out of my mind, the work day was all I had once dreamed about: challenging and engaging and more fabulous than I had ever imagined. And when the echoes of Shawna’s harsh accusations crept in, my resolve and my love and my own indignation about all I had learned burned in me like a fever. She was going to try to come between us. To change Alexander’s mind. To take away the one beautiful thing in my life. What I thought about that was: game on.