Chapter One: Challenge
My migraine seemed to only grow in strength, despite the fact that I had washed down even more pain relief with liters of water. Pinching the top of my nose, I forced myself to look away from my laptop. The white glare of the screen wasn’t helping. Instead, I peered listlessly through the glass walls of my small office. My eyes came to rest on Cassidy, my friend and colleague as she flirted with an entranced lunch boy. I smiled faintly. “Oh, to be so young,” I thought.
She flicked through her honeycomb bouncy curls and played with the long dangly earrings that her ex had bought her for Christmas last year. I was always envious of her blue eyes. They were so elusive, yet they danced with life. I knew that if I were the male standing in the lunch boy’s place, I would be just as captivated. She was slightly chubby in the face, but she had a youthful, innocent glow. She was thin, but couldn’t see that. I wished she would eat more. Her idea of what was attractive to the male mind was a lot different to what constituted a healthy body.
When she indulged in another bout of energetic hair tossing, she caught my eye and winked playfully. I rolled mine in return before looking back to my desk. Beside my work laptop was a photo of my little sister, Megan, and me. Although she was only two years younger—twenty-six in three months—her youth and playfulness reminded me of Cassidy. The familiar personality was comforting to have in the large and unfriendly city of New York.
Megan and I didn’t look much like one another, although we did have the same button nose. I had a more womanly, hourglass shape whilst she had an athletic one. My mid-length curly brunette hair was nowhere near as glamorous as her long blonde hair, despite the faint highlights I had put through it. My face was a more oval shape, with a sharper jaw, and my lips were plumper than hers—much like my mothers. She had our father’s lips and an awkward smile. With those chubby cheeks, she was able to get away with so much when we were children. And like mother always preached, I was the eldest and should know better. I had far thicker eyebrows in comparison to hers, but her lashes were to die for. We looked utterly different, yet it was our deceased father’s light-brown eyes and our mother’s lightly golden, tanned skin from her Latin parents that kept us recognizable as family.
It felt like an eternity since I had left her in the small apartment we had shared. Back then I had been seeking out my own career in Ithaca, which is about a four hour car trip from New York. My mind often drifted back there. We had left our home in Delaware when I was eighteen and Megan was only sixteen. Ithaca, famous for its large student population, beckoned us. She had insisted on following me there. After my father died, we could not bear to be separated. The promise of fun and excitement was too much to resist. I had been accepted into Ithaca College and Megan was accepted as an apprentice in a local factory. My mother eventually joined us there. Her home in Delaware felt empty without us. But, eventually, the proximity of New York could no longer be ignored. I had to follow my dreams. Somehow my dreams had led me here. And when my pencil skirt clung tightly around my waist or I perspired in front of my bosses, I regretted leaving her for this lifestyle.
I had realized after two hard years of reporting for the local paper of Ithaca that I wasn’t cut out for the profession. I always found myself looking out the window, seeking adventure, or for something that I could report on constantly. I was frequently sent out to jobs I found trivial rather than newsworthy. I believed that if I moved to New York, I could find the right opportunities and contacts to pursue a career as a travel columnist. To see the world, and have readers on the edge of their seats, was my ultimate dream. With each word I typed I wanted them to experience the world with me.
For two years now I had been working for Candice, a popular, glossy magazine based in Manhattan. I was a personal assistant now, which was supposedly an upgrade from my journalist days, but I couldn’t help but feel like I was being slave driven. The first six months seemed lively and great, and that was enough to reassure me I should settle in NYC. Despite the notoriety of renting in Manhattan, I found it easy to pay my bills on the wage I was on. I had a focus, and that was to break into the columnist world. Unfortunately, my own dreams seemed to slip further and further from my fingers as I immersed myself in Candice.
As my mind settled again on my present situation, I inevitably found myself peering over my shoulder at my busily typing boss, Debra Coorman. The source of all my anxieties. Just thinking of her left a bitter taste in my mouth. Little did I realize that I would have to break past this barrier before ever finding myself close to my ideal job. She stroked through her mid-length brown hair, which had sharp red through it, much like her temper. We had once worked well together, and had evenly shared the workload. This amicable partnership has dwindled for some unknown reason after we went to a few events together. After that she had turned on me for the worse. Since then she had been nothing but a bitch, and acted like that was her full time job too.
As if knowing I was looking her way, her pixie-like nose pointed up and her green snake eyes landed on me sharply. Her thin lips curled back and she waved me into her office with exaggerated agitation. I sighed, heavily frustrated that my glance alone invited her to beckon me like a dog. The packet of pain relief pills in my hand screamed at me to take one more tablet before I had to endure her company. Regretfully I set them down and instead picked up my thin black reading glasses and placed them back over my eyes. I grabbed a few records of my current “to-do” list and grimaced at the state it was in.
As I reached for the door handle I caught sight of my watch. Time had slipped away and it was now only an hour until everyone would leave for the day. Hopefully I could accomplish my tasks before then. Somehow my advancing confrontation with Debra reassured me that I would not finish alongside everyone else at five o’clock.
“Clover,” Debra snipped before I had even fully opened the glass door that separated her office from mine. “I have a few more things for you to do this afternoon. I have compiled your list and scanned it to your printer. Also, your week of holiday has been denied for your requested dates. Perhaps a few weeks after that and you might have better luck.”
“I put those dates in two months ago. It’s that week specifically I need off for my sister’s birthday,” I replied calmly. I held back my annoyance. The effort caused my migraine to pound more severely. I diverted my eyes from her as it seemed she worsened its affects.
“Well, unfortunately Gary and I have organized a retreat for that weekend, so I need someone to run this place whilst I am gone, and to answer the clients’ calls. You can always see your sister next year,” she said spitefully, her arrogant composure inciting my anger even further. Of course she and her husband had organized a retreat that weekend. “How splendid for them,” I thought bitterly.
“Of course,” I said with a reluctant smile. I took care not to show her she had crawled under my skin. I knew now that was what she thrived on. Taking a step back, I shot a longing look at the door. But the witch halted me in my steps by etching her lips into a thin, unfriendly smile. Her body language always expressed her true intentions.
“This weekend we have the launch for our new contract with Issobelle Sherain. You out of all people should know how exciting it is for our magazine to have such a world-renowned photographer working for us.”
Ah, yes. It was a great gain for our magazine to now have Issobelle Sherain on board. She was a young photographer, and had started off with landscapes only two years ago. She made her big break with the opening of one of her galleries. It was her “Short Boy” series that cemented her fame, and she was now hailed as the hip new artist of New York. She was considered a fresh breath in the world of photography and modelling. Although I had to confess that I could not see why. That’s not to say that she wasn’t an amazing photographer; in fact, I much admired her landscape images. I just didn’t understand how a skill in one aspect of photography qualified you as an expert for all images. Taking photos of models for front covers, and spread images, was a completely different thing altogether. Maybe I felt her skill was wasted on this industry. But it was not my line of expertise and because of that I couldn’t voice my opinion.
Our firm had offered her contract after contract to join us over the last year. And finally, at the end of last month, she accepted. It was a lucrative contract that secured her position for eighteen months. She was to be the only cover photographer and extra credit and ad space was to be at her disposal. For quite the impressive price she was now working full time for Candice. Her images were to be exclusive to our magazine, and no freelancing for other magazines was permitted. It was exciting for the team, but Debra’s tone did not convey that as she continued speaking.
“Because of this we are gathering our sponsors and fellow chairmen across the board to acknowledge our current status of progress. Our competitors will be unable to match us following this contract.” Before I could interrupt her to remind her that I was the one who had organized the event in the first place, she raised her hand to me. “You can now come.”
“That’s tomorrow night,” I said angrily. That left almost no time for preparation. How was I supposed to find the time to find an outfit with such little notice?
“Correct,” she said contemplatively. “Also, Geesh is still ill and can’t update the website with our new exposure on Issobelle. I need you to organize that. Upon agreement with Issobelle, we will also have direct links to her individual website. We will need to create a webpage for her that merges her look with the stylistics of our website. I need that updated by Monday. Don’t forget your list either.”
“Monday? That’s the day after our campaign, which is only tomorrow night!” I took a deep breath. Gritting my teeth, I held back my savageness. “And, I know nothing about websites and computers.”
“Clover, I can’t have this be a disappointment. If you can’t do it, I will simply find someone else who can,” she said snidely. It wasn’t the first time she had threatened my job. “It can only be updated the night before, so good luck. I will expect to see a full working release page on it by 12 a.m. Saturday night. Also, whilst you are on your way out, can you grab a coffee from the lunch boy for me before he starts licking Cassidy’s face.” She issued me a light, fake smile.
My mind raced through the many ways I could make this situation end badly for her. I bit my words back. The flames of her speech would drive me to yet another success. “I will not let her have this over me. I will do well in my job and be recognized eventually for my hard work,” I told myself inwardly.
“Clover, you do have a boyfriend now, don’t you? What are you now, twenty-eight? Cassidy mentioned to me that you have a boyfriend you can bring to events. I was starting to worry about you. I thought for some reason men didn’t have much of an attraction to you. But now with a boyfriend in the picture, I can relax. I have no doubt that he must be very handsome.” She let the bitter words hang in the air. Cassidy had never mentioned such a thing to her. It was her way of pushing me further and further, waiting for me to snap. “I look forward to meeting him tomorrow night.”
Often I had to hide my annoyance at people’s comments about my love life and appearance. Although I didn’t deem myself anything spectacular in appearance, I found that some women were less than thrilled when I spoke with their partners. My sister had pointed it out to me many years before. Some men couldn’t take me seriously as they stared at my womanly curves. My singleness cemented my unpopularity with couples. I knew my shape and single status were to blame. Often I felt self-conscious in my pencil skirts and blouses, but I dressed just as conservative and work-appropriate as everyone else. Megan always laughed to herself, commenting “jealousy is a curse.” She always said that I should never look down on myself because I was blessed with such a curvaceous figure and pretty face. Debra had a way though of making me doubt myself, and suddenly I felt that I must seem hideous to her.
I dipped my face as I walked away from her and calmly shut the door behind me. I crumbled up the small “to-do” list in my hand. I was not looking forward to what would be waiting in my office to replace it. I straightened my pencil skirt over my hips, trying to summon some semblance of calm. I didn’t know how to create a new website page. I didn’t even know where to start.
“Ah, Clover,” Cassidy cheered excitedly when I walked over to her.
“Hey,” I acknowledged her glumly. “Darrel, can you please take a cappuccino, one and a half sugars, lukewarm, to Mrs. Coorman.” He left with a bounce in his step. Cassidy waved him away with a lingering smile. Looking at the clock on the wall whilst rubbing my neck and shoulders, I now knew for sure I wouldn’t be getting out at the same time as everyone else.
“You didn’t mention to Debra that I had a boyfriend, did you?” I asked, although I already knew she hadn’t.
“No, why? Is she playing games again?” Cassidy said with her chin in her hand, looking up at me innocently.
“She wants me to go to the campaign tomorrow night with only a day’s notice. Because of the workload she just dumped on me I don’t even have time to buy a dress for it. She even decided to throw in a snipe at me for not having a boyfriend at the previous campaigns.” I rubbed my forehead in frustration. The bitter hate I held toward her was small in comparison to the workload she had just burdened me with.
“Well, you can look at my dresses,” she replied excitedly. I assessed her size against my own. She was adorable, but my figure was slightly more of an hourglass shape than hers. I guessed I was about six pounds heavier. Before I could argue, she added, “I could even do your hair. I have a few accessories that will bring out your coloring, and I have the nicest green shades that will highlight your brown eyes. Oh, and I just learned this new trick from YouTube...”
I wanted to curl up on her desk and just give up on the task at hand. The thought of my workload tormented me like a crazed bee. But I was good at my job and wouldn’t let such tasks get the better of me, even if my boss was determined to push me over the edge.
“So what are you going to do about the boyfriend thing?” Cassidy asked, breaking me out of my reflections.
“I don’t know. I haven’t really met anyone since I’ve lived here. I haven’t been on a date for as long as I can remember. I can’t think of anyone who I could even ask to escort me.”
“That’s it!” Cassidy exclaimed, scurrying to her bag. After a fruitless struggle with an invisible animal that seemed to strangle her hand from the depths of the big bottomless pit she called her bag, she emptied the contents onto her desk. Bright lipsticks, perfumes, and even jewelry littered the table.
“Do you have half of your apartment in there?” I asked, amazed. I contemplated whether a kitchen sink could possibly fit. A small purple purse fell out at last. With triumph she picked it up and scanned through its insides before fixating on a card and then offering it to me. “His name is Damon, and he offers an hourly rate.”
I looked at the card in suspicion. “Cassidy...this is an escort’s card,” I said cautiously, wondering if she knew what “his services” actually entailed.
“One of my friends gave me the card. She said he was great and utterly divine. At least this way you won’t rock up by yourself. His charm and looks will make her even more envious. It’s completely confidential, so no one will know.” She flicked her bouncy curls over her shoulder and looked around to make sure no one was listening.
As if secrecy were contagious, I too glanced around before looking again at the card. “I’m not sure about this. It makes me feel pathetic that I can’t find a man myself. And besides, what is so wrong with being single and independent? That was always something I was proud of. Until today,” I whispered. I looked down at the simple black card. The gold calligraphy was elegant and tasteful. It cited only a first name, a contact number, and the most important word of all. Escort.
“It’s just once and no one will ever know. Just imagine her expression when you do turn up with your ‘boyfriend.’ She will be so jealous. Gary doesn’t have much to offer in the looks department anymore,” she laughed lightly.
I fiddled with the card in my hand, and as I did a more immature part of me acknowledged how great it would be to trump her just this once. I couldn’t help but consider it. “Maybe,” I pondered, walking back to my office to face the “to-do” list.
Hours later, I was alone in the office and still busily replying to clients and sponsors. Every time I unearthed a new set of instructions highlighting another unrealistic task, I fought the urge to reach for the phone. I looked from the black card to the time: 10 p.m. I froze as once again my fingers itched to call the number. His number. Just this once, I wanted to see an expression of embarrassed repentance fleet across Debra’s sharp features.
But I found that I couldn’t make my fingers dial the number. I grabbed my cell phone, too scared to call the number, and sent a simple text instead. “Is this Damon?” Instantly I set the phone down as if it had burned me. I picked up my list once again with a sigh.
The sudden vibration and glow of my phone gave me a fright. I stared at it. The number I had just text was now calling me back. I didn’t think he would respond so quickly. My heart was now racing and, reluctantly, I answered the phone.
“Hello?” I said shakily, feeling stupid.
“Do you need to be escorted somewhere?” a low, deep voice asked.
“Um,” I said, surprised by his enticing voice. If he looked as sexy as he sounded then he would be perfect to show Debra up. “I am. It’s a...a formal event. Tomorrow night?”
“I am free tomorrow night,” he said smoothly. “Text me your address and pickup time before tomorrow, and I will see you then.”
“Okay,” I agreed.
He hung up after the brief exchange. I felt like I had committed a crime. But I had to admit, the secrecy of it was exciting. Thrilling, even. I looked to the photo of Megan and started smiling at the thought of what she would say. Much like Cassidy, I think she would agree that getting an escort to annoy Debra was a small way by which I could stand up for myself.
I text Damon my address and time of pickup, and then refocused on my work. I suddenly had all the concentration I needed. I would give a good impression tomorrow at the campaign. I wouldn’t let Debra look down on me any longer. This was one of her games I was willing to play for the first time. I accepted the challenge.