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 on my tablet. My job was simple. 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 anger 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 entirety of the West Coast event planning world, which meant it was gold to me. At least until I came up with a better plan.
“Ok, we’re all ready for you, Ms. Carlisle,” I said, gesturing toward the photographers ahead. “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 so big it hurt my cheeks. She didn’t look convinced.
“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 resisted the urge to return the favor and tell her how old she looked. 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 to throw the tablet of demands into the nearest wall.
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 pigging out on all the wasted food, kicking off their shoes and enjoying the night.
“Where is my water?” Clarion Long asked, her date consumed with the reflective windows at the entrance as he patted down a few fly aways.
“We have everything prepared for you right past the photographers,” I said, making sure to send a warning text to Noel, the waiting attendant, who was probably contemplating her self-worth, as was I.
Scanning the room, I watched as the cameras flashed against the Reading Restoration logos. The crowds of guests and assistants were finally calming down, but there was still too much going on to keep it all from blurring together, and my head started 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 I 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 her usual charming glare. The one that said I was trying her already thin patience.
“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.
“It was for a donor." I followed her like a lost puppy, my dress of course snagging under my shoe because why wouldn't it be dramatic at a time like this. I hastily pulled the hem out from my heel, half jumping half walking to keep pace before she noticed I was embarrassing her.
“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 that was still being updated with last minute demands. “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.” My head snapped toward the shrill voice like I was physically drawn to the drama. This was not good.
Naomi Tait, the tabloid ice queen and all around Hollywood hell maker herself had graced us with her presence. Wonderful. And she was heading right for me. She wore a a skin-tight, silver satin gown that wrapped around her stick-thin frame like it had been painted over her poreless skin. By all accounts, she was radiant, and if I hadn’t just daydreamed of my future life through the second half of 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, the she gave me implying that no matter what came out of Naomi's mouth next, I’d be in some serious shit.
"Can I be of assistance, Ms. Tait?"
“Yes, finally. Someone competent.”
I bit down so hard on my cheek, I tasted blood. All I was allowed to do was apologize for the inconvenience. All I could do was stand there and wait for her to stop complaining about how my mistakes, which were tallying up to not controlling time and my underdeveloped ability to read minds, were a dark smear on ARK and everything it works so very hard to achieve.
When Naomi wrapped up her monologue, she smiled oh so sweetly at me before trouncing off toward the photographers, because she was here and would hate to disappoint her team.
I handed it over without question, ready to make my show stopping dramatic exit. Only, I made it exactly two steps away before walking smack into a waiter, the long glass of whiskey spilling all over the ruched bodice of my gown.
I didn't even stop, dabbing the wet spot with a pile of white server’s napkins I'd shoved into my pocket earlier that evening as I walked out the side door. Not to be dramatic, but this was officially the worst night of my life.
“Tough crowd in there,” a gentleman said as I walked past him.
“Yeah, you could say that.” 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. 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.
“Where’re you going? The party’s that way,” the stranger said, his laugh rippling over the silence. He'd obviously missed the "Don't talk to me" sign flashing in neon lights on my forehead.
I sighed. This night was going to be the death of me. Pulling off my headset, I plopped onto the nearest bench and closed my eyes, listening to the sound of my dreams dying a slow, merciless death.
“That’s no party. Save yourself while you can.” I leaned forward, propping myself up on my elbows as I massaged my throbbing temples. “I love my job. I love my job. I really love my job.”
“It can’t be that bad.”
I looked over at the stranger stealing the seat beside me, my curious eyes drinking him in. He wore a relaxed smile, the look of someone completely unbothered by life. Must be nice, I thought, letting my gaze linger over his sharp jawline and then up toward his eyes. Even in the dim garden lights, I could see that they were green. Probably more of an emerald green than jade but it was always difficult to get the details mid internal crisis.
His mouth curved up when I didn't respond. I knew he knew I was checking him out but without any pride left, I was just going to stare until he left. Two birds one stone.
“Sorry. I um..." Words. Use your words. "You should get going. The photographers will notice if you arrive disheveled, and this humidity is a killer.”
“Oh, 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.”
“Why come then?” I asked, trying to think through who he was referring to. “I know I wouldn’t pay ten dollars to attend an event with my ex, let alone ten thousand.”
“Naomi and I aren’t on bad terms so it's not a big deal. Just inconvenient, you know?”
“You dated Naomi Tait? And lived?” I asked, looking him over again in disbelief. This guy had to be a little crazy if he fell in love with her. She was vapid and cruel and a thousand other things, not to mention she almost got me fired. “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. The only parties I went to were ones I planned.
“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 whisky, which was not exuding the young professional vibe I’d been aiming for. “It was nice meeting you, but I have to get back to work.”
Walking back inside felt like a death march. My dress was clinging to all the wrong places. My blisters were angry. Very little was encouraging me to do the right thing, but all I had to do was not get fired. That was it. I would kiss people's asses and smile and take all the blame. I could do this.
“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."
“Actually, I’m ready to help,” I said as I took the tablet back from her red-painted claws. "Really. I just needed some air. I'm good to go." I forced a smile. "Better than ever."
“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.
“Marjorie, please don't do this. I've done everything by the book."
"Perhaps you should reread it for good measure." She pursed her lips, her thin smile making me wish I hadn't just begged for anything. "You showed real promise when you started, but nights like tonight make me think you’d be better suited away from the main floor from now on.”
“This is all a misunderstanding,” I said, trying not to lose my temper as I slid off my headset. I was mortified this was happening within earshot of everyone, especially the donors. All of whom could be future clients. My face had to be twelve shades of red but I couldn't move. My legs were leaden, and I could barely feel my fingers as I clutched the tablet to keep my fingers from forming fists.
Marjorie’s eyebrow lifted as if her interest was piqued. “A 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 was trying to help. As in, he not only overheard the conversation I would be replaying in my head for the next three years, but thought he would actually try and make it better. This was it. I was actually going to die of humiliation.
I turned to see a better-lit image of the gentleman from outside. He was tall, a few inches over 6ft, and his hair was inky black and contrasted the now clear green of his eyes. So they were jade.
"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 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.
"Intern," she corrected.
"Your intern," he smiled, though it was definitely not intended to be kind. More of a you're-excused-now smile that admittedly made me a little happy. Ok, a lot happy.
“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?”
“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’m leaving. 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. I needed to stop checking out the donor. Excuse me. Mr. Bellisario. And get back to proving I could actually do something right. Well, on Monday because I wasn't about to make a miraculous comeback tonight.
“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." Hopefully. "And all of that depends on Marjorie’s golden recommendation." Which may have been downgraded to bronze at this point. I sighed. "Hell, maybe I really should just pick another line of work. I mean my only qualifications are an internship at a consulting firm and Uncle Oscar’s recommendation, which probably has an embarrassing story attached to it.”
“Wait, he’s your uncle?”
“Oh sorry, yes and no. He’s always been my Uncle Oscar, and you know how it is. Family friends always end up sounding like relatives if they’re around enough,” 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 interns hate me because I didn’t earn my spot here. Again. Super exhausting. Far too much information. The short of it is I’m not sticking around.” I paused, trying to regain my composure, but I was ranting, and damn, 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 it was obvious 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 swear this is an off night. I’m just going to go now. I hope you have a evening. ”
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. “My date tonight couldn't make it. You could be my plus one.”
For a second, I wanted to believe that I could be that girl who says yes to something spontaneous. But I didn't 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 it, 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 ten-thousand-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 lackey 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.