I had never seen a red carpet in person, but there was always something about the concept that made me want to roll my eyes. And, thanks to both personal assistants and the associate planners getting a nasty stomach virus, it was my job to make sure that this part of the charity event went off without a hitch or my internship would come to a quick and pitiful end. Among being black balled and run out of L.A., it would also mean giving up my dreams of working for Bane Events and Planning.
“August. Over here,” one of the photographers shouted as the next celebrity made his way toward the receiving line. One by one, A-listers and their dates wandered through the haze of camera flashes with fake smiles and comments about whom they were wearing while I made sure everyone was happy.
“Ok, next up we have Kat Carlisle and her date, Brandon Kent,” I said over my headset before checking them off the list. My job was simple. I would greet the donors, relay that they were ready, and then tell them when to walk. Generally speaking, it should be a no brainer, but my head was already spinning with useless information about who needs what type of lighting and don’t even get me started about the demands. These people made walking and smiling a production and a half. I just felt bad for the caterers. That had to be a last-resort type of job.
When the next couple stepped up, I read over the cautionary information sent ahead by Kat’s publicist because if anyone so much as breathed the phrase “sex tape,” Kat would relinquish all future donations to a different charity and make a scene in the process, two things that would get my name carved into Marjorie’s list of the forever unemployed.
Marjorie was a forty-year-old slave to ARK. She practically lived in her office, barking orders like the company overseer, but I could tell she loved the way people cowered when she made her demands. She was definitely on the older side, that wasn’t up for debate, but she did her best to hide the angry-wrinkles behind monthly botox injections and a quarter-inch of makeup. With her graying blonde hair, angular face, and beady blue eyes, she was definitely no one’s office crush, but her word was gold to my Uncle Oscar and the rest of the event-planning world, so I needed her recommendation if I wanted to stand a chance on my own.
“Ok, we’re all ready for you Ms. Carlisle,” I said, gesturing toward the photograph stop. “Have a great evening.”
Her date gave a slight nod of his head before kissing Kat’s cheek and escorting her forward, the actress’ emerald green gown fanning out behind her as she moved.
After the first round of pictures were taken, Kat moved further down the receiving line, making room for the next guest and heading toward the interviewer from Haute Affair.
More celebrities and wealthy donors poured in, each one more notorious than the last, but they were only unchecked boxes on my list. There was no time to gush over how much I loved their movies or whether I thought their books were to die for. I had a job to do.
“Sophia, be sure that the Walters aren’t questioned beyond what they’re wearing,” Marjorie said over my headset, making me panic. “They’re Reading Restoration’s biggest donors. Don’t mess this up.”
I had seen Mr. Walters many times before, but never with his wife. She looked sour and untouchable, but that didn’t say much considering the crowd. Mr. Walter’s normally unruly grey hair was coifed and pasted to one side, matching the formality of his black tuxedo. He smiled over at me for a moment, his eyes glancing down the floor-length navy bridesmaid gown I’d borrowed from Katie, my roommate, with an appreciative glance.
I tried not to squirm under his completely inappropriate gaze as his wife sent daggers my way.
“You look lovely this evening, Mrs. Walters,” I said with a smile before looking over any of the last minute requests.
“I was told Victoria would be handling this,” she said, her tone implying that I wasn’t qualified to do my job.
“Now, now, cherie. I’m sure Marjorie wouldn’t give her the job if she weren’t capable of handling something as simple as a line.”
“She barely looks like she’s out of high school,” Mrs. Walters said as I fought back a frown. Smile and be polite. That was all I had to do, and I’d stay employed.
“They’re ready for you,” I said, motioning with my hand toward the photographers and ignoring that burning desire in my chest to tell her how old she looked too.
Unfortunately, the second hour went as quickly as the first. And by that, I mean it didn’t. Few people actually arrived in time for the hors d’oeuvres portion of the evening, so that meant the other five event interns were likely pigging out in their rooms on all the wasted food, kicking off their shoes and enjoying the night while I was left tending to the many ridiculous requests of the rich and snobbish as they trickled in throughout the evening because that’s what happened when the boss wants to see you squirm under the pressure.
“I would like an Evian in a glass,” Clarion Long said, her date consumed with the reflective windows of the entrance as he patted down a few fly aways. “And be sure there are exactly six ice cubes and two slices of lemon, not wedges.”
“We have everything prepared for you right past the photographers,” I said, making sure to send a warning text from my tablet to Noel, the waiting attendant, who was probably contemplating her self-worth after tracking down all of these ridiculous requests.
I looked quickly over the room, watching as the cameras flashed against the Reading Restoration logos. The rest of the room was growing less populated, but there was still too much commotion for my taste, and my head began to pound.
“I’m too thirsty to answer questions. I’d like it now,” Clarion said as Justin Grieves, the young model she’d left her husband for, sidled up to her, his smile just a little too white for my taste. For a moment, I wondered if they glowed in the dark before typing an S.O.S. to Noel and motioning for someone to take my place.
I nodded to a few people I knew, relaying information through the headset about the delay as I booked it up the hidden staircase and grabbed the waiting glass from an exhausted looking Noel.
“I don’t know why we do this,” she said, running her hand through her glossy red hair.
“At least you get paid,” I said as scaled the stairs, watching for anything that could trip me up before my heels hit the first floor.
“Your water,” I said, approaching where Clarion should have been. Only the woman standing where she had been was not the demanding crazy lady I’d left behind and now Clarion was midway through her interview, sans the water she claimed she needed and Marjorie was coming over with poison in her eyes.
“I told you that breaks were to be taken off the carpet,” Marjorie said, looking at the glass of mineral water dripping all over my hand before handing it off to a stranger.
“This was for a donor,” I said, following her like a lost puppy.
“I know this is a big responsibility for you to take on, but your uncle assured me this was something you could handle. If that’s not the case, I suggest you look for a job elsewhere.” She paused, her tone making my hand clench. “I hear Party Planet is hiring.”
I gave her a polite smile, trying not to imagine a life planning over-priced birthday parties before I took a deep breath and pushed past the overwhelming desire to quit and never look back.
“It won’t happen again,” I said, looking to the list on my tablet. “If you’ll excuse me.”
Even though my uncle got me this job, it was Marjorie who made my life a journey to the pits of hell. She could make or break me in this industry, but if I played my cards right, I could have my dream job in a few years and that was enough for me to simmer down and nod like a gutless sycophant.
“Did you hear me? I was told I’d have a private entrance. This isn’t private.” I looked over the girl wearing a skin-tight, silver satin gown that wrapped around her stick-thin frame like a glove. She was radiant, and if I hadn’t just daydreamed of my future life through her rant, I would have sworn she was an angel.
“I’m sorry, Miss Tait, but your request was for a private entrance at six o’clock. I’m afraid the photographers assigned to your entrance have left, but I’m sure we could sneak you by the paparazzi if that’s an agreeable alternative.”
“An agreeable alternative? Is this girl for real right now?” she asked no one in particular. “I don’t think so. I want to speak to your boss.” When I didn’t move fast enough, she pointed a manicured finger at me, which was more terrifying than I originally thought. “Now.”
As if sensing my fear, Marjorie rushed over and asked if there was something wrong, but the look she gave me implied that no matter what I’d be in some serious shit.
“Yes, there is something wrong. Your intern made promises she couldn’t keep, and I won’t stand for it.” I knew that speaking against her, no matter how wrong she was, would only cause more trouble, so I apologized for the inconvenience and handed my tablet to Marjorie, claiming that I needed a break before I started getting the parting favors ready.
Only, I walked smack into a waiter, his glass of whiskey spilling all over the ruched bodice of my gown. Now, I would look incompetent and smell like the boozy employee struggling to get through her job. My night was just getting better and better.
Dabbing the wet spot with a server’s cloth napkin, I walked toward the side door, hoping that a few moments alone would give me enough composure to handle what would be the butt of the intern meeting Monday.
“Tough crowd in there,” a gentleman said as I walked past him.
“Yeah, you could say that,” I said as I kept walking, sopping up the alcohol that had made it to second base in a matter of seconds.
I’m not sure why I expected to feel better out in the muggy summer air, but all I could think about was decking Marjorie and downing the next drink I found, in that order, but at least the view out here was nice. There was a well-groomed walking path and gardens that swept off well into the distance, so at the very least I wasn’t going to lick my wounds by a dumpster or something equally depressing.
“Wait, where’re you going? The party’s that way,” the stranger said, his laugh rippling over the silence as I removed my headset and plopped onto the nearest bench, closing my eyes as I listened to the sound of my dreams dying a slow, merciless death.
“That’s no party. Save yourself while you can.” I leaned forward on the bench, propping myself up on my elbows as I massaged my throbbing temples.
“It can’t be that bad.”
I looked over at this stranger, who was now stealing the seat beside me, my curious eyes taking in his relaxed smile, sharp bone structure, and the way his dark green eyes roamed over my face as though he cared who I was. He very well could be an actor or model, but something about the way he carried himself said he spent his time doing more important things than smiling for photographs.
“I’m sure you’ll have a great time,” I said before turning away. “You should get going. The photographers will notice if you arrive unkempt, and this humidity is a killer.”
“They aren’t looking for me,” he said as he leaned back, stretching out his legs before crossing them at the ankle. “Hell, they don’t even care that I’m here. Best they’ve got on me is that my ex showed up, though that’s hardly newsworthy. She donates to these things because her publicist told her she needs to get rid of her ice queen rep or else she won’t book anything else.”
My mind flashed through the possibilities until it landed the woman in silver.
“You dated Naomi Tait? And lived?” I asked, looking him over again in disbelief. “I mean, yeah she’s pretty, but that only gets you so far these days.”
At least that’s what I heard. It’s not like I knew from personal experience. I was basically a social pariah because of how much I worked.
“You’d be surprised. She can be sweet when she wants to.”
“Of course,” I said, standing and pointedly not looking back. My dress was nearly dry, but I reeked of whiskey sour, which wasn’t ideal. “It was nice meeting you, but I have to get back to work.”
I kept walking away, letting the click of my heels echo in the silence as I made my way back to the main door. My blisters were making an angry comeback, but my focus was on not getting fired before this damn internship even ended. Without hesitation, I reattached the headset to my ear and listened to the reports being relayed by Marjorie.
“Oh, there you are,” she called to me, Uncle Oscar by her side. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. I explained what happened to Mr. Belvida, and we both agree that its best if you call it a night.”
I looked over at him for some sign that this was a joke, but he just gave me a look that said “better luck next time, kiddo” before excusing himself from the conversation.
“Actually, I’m ready to help,” I said as I took the tablet back from her red-painted claws.
“I think Marjorie is right, kiddo,” Uncle Oscar said, looking back. “Just enjoy the night and start back on your work Monday.” In his eyes, maybe he must have thought he was helping, but ending now would be a big setback for everything that I’d worked for.
He gave my shoulder a tight squeeze before excusing himself to his guests in the main room.
“I apologize for taking the measures I did, but Mr. Belvida asked about our progress. Perhaps you’d be better suited away from the main floor from now on.”
“I’m not trying to overstep my bounds, but two misunderstandings don’t mean I didn’t do a good job,” I said, trying not to lose my temper as I slid off my headset. I took a few calming breaths as I stood there, mortified that this was happening within earshot of everyone, including the donors.
Marjorie’s eyebrow lifted as if her interest was piqued. “Two misunderstandings can be the difference between landing a real client and working a nine year old’s bat mitzvah. Just remember that before you tell Hollywood’s elite that they can’t have what they want.”
“I apologize for interrupting, but I saw what happened, and you should reassess the situation,” the stranger from outside said, making my face flame with embarrassment. If there were a moment I thought I could actually die of humiliation, this was it.
I turned, red faced, to see a better-lit image of the gentleman from outside. He was tall, at least 6ft 3 if not taller, and his hair was inky black and contrasted the now clear green of his eyes, sending my heart into a chaotic frenzy as it skipped slightly when he stole a look for just a second too long. He couldn’t be older than thirty, but the way he spoke made me question if he was just one of those forever-young people.
“Of course, Mr. Bellesario,” Marjorie said, her tone sickly sweet and sycophantic. “I will be sure to. If you would just step over here, you can head right down the camera line and join the others.” She paused, checking something on her tablet before smiling. “I personally moved your seat away from Miss Tait to assure your privacy for the duration of the evening.”
He gave her a look that said he wasn’t thrilled with her red herring.
“Might I have a moment with your assistant?” he said, looking at me to be sure that I knew exactly whom he was talking about.
Marjorie stood there for a second longer than she should have, her blue eyes looking between the two of us before she nodded and made her way to the dining room.
Without another word, he put his hand on my lower back and guided me toward the corner of the main room so that we were out of Marjorie’s earshot.
“I don’t like the way she speaks to you.” He looked over me as if the pain of being humiliated was somehow physically evident on my face. “I take it she’s your boss?”
“She’s one of the top corporate event planners in the city. It’s her job to order us around,” I replied, pushing a strand of hair behind my ear before mustering up the courage to look him in the eye. “Look, I’m sorry if this is rude, but I think it’s time I leave. I’m exhausted and hungry, and I really don’t want to look at her sour face anymore. I see it enough to scar me for life as it is.”
He laughed softly, directing my attention to his mouth. I diverted my eyes quickly, but I felt my face flush when I realized how awkward I was being. I needed to stop crushing on the donor and get back to proving I could actually do something right.
“I’ll speak with Oscar about this,” he said, his eyes meeting mine.
So he knew my uncle. Interesting.
“No, you can’t,” I said as I placed my hand on his forearm. Realizing that the staff wasn’t supposed to interact this way with donors, I dropped my hand, feeling the aftershocks of electricity from the sensation alone. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“Force of habit?” he asked, smiling. “So how did you end up working here? Your boss seems critical considering how well everything is going.”
“I’m working for ARK until the merger, and then I’m moving on to bigger and better things. And all of that depends on Marjorie’s golden recommendation. Hell, maybe I’m not qualified to run the red carpet part of this charity event. I mean my only qualifications are an internship at a consulting firm and Uncle Oscar’s recommendation.”
“Wait, he’s your uncle?”
“Oh sorry, sometimes it still slips. I always called him that growing up, and you know how it is. Family friends always end up sounding like relatives,” I said, trying to smile away the awkward, but it was starting to get out of control.
“And you’re leaving the company soon?”
“As soon as it changes hands. Half the company hates me because I didn’t earn my spot there. The other half...well, that’s the board. They don’t know me, but I’m sure they’d find Oscar’s favoritism less than ideal. I’m just leaving before I get fired.” I paused, trying to regain my composure, but I was ranting, and it felt good. “If I had to guess, next Friday’s probably circled with little red hearts on Marjorie’s calendar.”
“There’s nothing wrong with using connections to get what you want,” he said as he tried to smile, but I could see that something was bothering him. “I don’t see why you should resign because Oscar’s leaving. I hear the new CEO is planning some management changes anyway.”
“I have my reasons,” I muttered before being thrown back to reality. I was complaining to a guest. I was literally the most unprofessional person alive. “Oh my god. I’ve been venting to you about my problems, and you’ve paid a lot of money to be here. I’m so sorry. I’m just going to go now. I hope you have a nice night.”
I tried to calm myself as I turned toward the hidden elevator to the second floor, but a warm hand touched my arm, the sensation electrocuting me in the most wonderful way.
“Please don’t leave,” he said, his green eyes tempting me to say yes. “I don’t have a date tonight, and you could be my plus one.”
For a second, I wanted to believe that I could, but this wasn’t my world. I didn’t want to drink expensive wine and talk about all the stuff I could never dream of doing. That wasn’t really my thing. I mean, it was pretty romantic of him to offer, and Katie would die and go to heaven if I came back with this particular story, but all I really wanted to do was run upstairs, sneak some dinner, and then sleep until noon.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Bellesario, but that’d make everything worse. I think cutting my losses and hiding out in my room would be best. But thank you for your kind offer.”
“Please, call me Ari,” he said, offering his hand as if this were a business transaction.
I shook his hand, trying to ignore how the warmth of his palm sent shivers down my spine. He was probably the most attractive person I’d ever met and here I was, pushing him away because I was too afraid to lose my internship.
“Sophia, but I prefer Sophie. Sounds less like someone’s scolding me,” I said, forcing a laugh as I pulled my hand way.
“It wouldn’t be so bad, you know.” Ari looked away for a moment and then back to me, his gaze sending a second wave of shivers under my skin. I wanted to believe I was impervious to all of this, but I wasn’t. Not one bit. “We can eat dinner, talk.”
“Mhm.” I pretended I was waiting for more, but really I was stalling. If I left, I’d never see him again. I needed to think and think fast if I was ok with this.
“And if I’m being completely honest, I don’t want to deal with Naomi and not having a date means she’ll be sidled up to me all evening, separated table or not. Really, you’d be doing me a huge favor.”
“So you’re using me then?” I asked, trying not to smile.
For a second, I thought it over, weighing the pros and cons of going along with him to the dark side. Well, it wasn’t actually the dark side, but it was fun pretending that my decision was somehow transporting me into a parallel dimension in which I was famous, rich, and could actually afford to eat at a $10,000 dollar table. There was still a good part of me that wanted to stick with logic and say no, but I wanted to go. I wanted to be someone other than Marjorie’s bitch for the night.
“Fine, but I better get some chocolate cake out of this, or the deal’s off.”
I watched him blink for a moment as if surprised.
“Done,” Ari said, offering me his arm. “And one drink.”
“Shouldn’t I be the one bargaining?” I asked as I unwound the strands of my French braid so that I’d have some volume to my hair.
“I don’t know,” he said before we were ushered into the spotlight. “Your demand for cake was nearly a deal breaker.”
The cameras flashed as we were directed to look at least five different ways all at once, but my eyes eventually adjusted, and with Ari’s hand snaked around me waist, well, I felt like I was used to the attention of being seen.