I’m packing my things and going back to L.A.
Or am I? No. I’m going to stay here, and tell Sebastian the truth instead of running away from everything. But is that the best choice?
I’m in my hotel room, staring at my suitcase that lays on the ground. The room is quiet; my phone is on silent. I can’t dare face the text messages from Sarah or even Sebastian asking why I immediately left the charity ball after I rushed out of the ball room Sebastian and I danced in.
Unable to make a decision, I sit at the foot of my bed and sigh. Garrett’s “threat” to me doesn’t even seem like something that happened; it’s hard to come to terms with finding out the man you practically looked up to was wearing a mask the entire time. After our encounter, I know have two choices: go back to L.A. and talk to Ingrid Jefferson, or stay here. Stay with Sebastian.
I can’t bear to stand in his presence and live in the shadow of a lie, especially after him and I danced so closely. It was a feeling so alien to me that it feels as if it shouldn’t have happened. To some other woman, yes; some other woman dancing in the main ballroom with a dress so beautiful it captures every eye and legs so long they seem to go on forever.
I walk into the bathroom and wash my face with cold water and soap until my skin feels raw. After patting my face with a soft towel, I stare at myself in the mirror—I stare at my freckles that are now able to breathe without the blanket of makeup shielding them from the world. I stare at my big brown eyes that always look so wide; so curious and inexperienced. I stare at the roundness of my face and the overall coyness and plainness of my appearance. I’m not ugly; I’m just average. Plain.
As if my hand no longer belongs to me, I reach for my hair bun tightly wound around pins and hair ties and begin to free it. The minute the last pin is out, my brown curls spring from their previous confinement and fall down at my shoulders.
Is this better? I think to myself. Am I better this way? Am I less average this way?
These curls, this hair falling down into soft, chocolate spirals around me in its wideness and untamed liberty make me feel depersonalized. How can I strive to be someone better if I have yet to find closure within my broken self? How can I strive to be anyone better if the sight of my real self, staring back at me, waiting for me to accept it, doesn’t even feel real?
This Leslie, the Leslie with her hair down free and her makeup gone from her face is the Leslie that no one has seen—that he hasn’t seen. The artificial me—the artificial me that lies to people in order to get what I want and refuses to see myself genuinely deserving of anything is the person that I have shown to the world. But I made the mistake of showing Sebastian these two sides together at the same time, one sometimes over powering the other. The question is: which Leslie will I tell him is real?
Are any of these Leslie’s ones that he even wants?
Did he tell you that you’re beautiful? Did he make you feel like you were worth something more than what you believe? Oh, don’t tell me that he made you think that he’s different and that he’s changed? You aren’t the first one he’s done this to, and you certainly aren’t the last. Once he gets what he wants out of you, he will throw you away like the rest of them.
I’m a fool. I’m a confused fool who now has no idea what to do; I have never felt this lost since I isolated myself from those in my life who made me feel this exact way. But I’m a fool who has been hurt too many times to be hurt again. Maybe Garrett is lying. Maybe Sebastian has changed or has shown me who he really is.
But what if Garrett isn’t lying?
I leave the bathroom and my thoughts behind in it. Approaching my luggage, I run around my room packing everything back into its designated compartment. After my suitcase is closed, I open my laptop to book a flight. I see a text pop up from Sebastian; one of the few he has sent:
“Leslie, ignoring me isn’t going to help anything. Can you tell me what’s wrong? I know something’s bothering you.”
Seeing his voice crammed into a few pixilated words makes me remember the way he held me as we danced. I crush the memory, the first big sign of vulnerability and trust I let seep out to him, by turning my phone completely off, and for the first time it hurts to do so. When my laptop is powered on, I begin to book the earliest flight out to Los Angeles. To back home.
I leave tomorrow morning. No matter what.
I had realized once I boarded the plane that it was the first time I had flown alone—and not in a private jet—since I agreed to Garrett’s plan.
Getting off the plane was no homecoming worth cheering at. I haven’t told anyone, not even Beth or Paul that I’m back in Los Angeles. I just have one objective: meet Ingrid Jefferson.
The publishing firm that Ingrid works for is a small one downtown—so small that I have never heard of it. I’m surprised a woman like Ingrid Jefferson who used to be Sebastian’s publicist is now working somewhere so modest.
I don’t have plans to go straight home when I get off of my flight. Instead, I haul my possessions into a cab that stops for me and tell the driver the address of the publications firm. The drive there, I can barely keep my eyes open. The only thing keeping me awake is the anxiety and nervousness I have about meeting Ingrid. I don’t know what this meeting is to hold. All I know is that Garrett wants me to speak with her. I would think that the Leslie I know—artificial Leslie—would be smart enough not to fall into his trap. But the vulnerable, weak and emotionally unstable Leslie—the real Leslie—couldn’t help but drop all of my responsibilities to Garrett’s son and fulfil his wish.
The drive to the publications firm from LAX is about twenty minutes with traffic. The building is small, grey, but with a nice sign and wide windows out front. I pay the driver and thank him for his patronage before taking my luggage and purse and planting them on the sidewalk. I don’t allow my thoughts to eat up my objective; I walk straight to the doors and invite myself inside.
The lobby is small like the building but wide in terms of design. The décor is very plain, making it seem bigger than it actually is. Beyond the receptionist’s desk, I see small cubicles and people in attire similar to the attire I’m currently wearing walk around with papers in hand or coffee by their mouths. The atmosphere reminds me of when I used to work for a publications firm before Garrett “recruited” me; I became one of his little minions, now that I think of everything I used to do for him and his image.
“May I help you?”
The secretary holds the phone to her chest and looks up at me. Phones ring behind her figure.
I walk up to her desk. “Yes, I’m here to see Ingrid Jefferson?”
“Take a seat, please.”
The waiting room is empty except for an older man sitting in the corner, reading one of the magazines offered on the small table. I sit on the other end, setting my things at my feet.
“Ingrid Jefferson to the lobby, please,” the receptionist says into the phone. “Ingrid Jefferson to the lobby.”
Now I’m more nervous. Ingrid is walking here this very moment, and I have no idea what to say to her. Does she know that I’m here? Did Garrett tell her? Better yet, is Ingrid even going to speak with me truthfully, instead of saying what Garrett wants me to hear? I check my phone; something I do when I want to get my mind off of things. But then I realize that doing this isn’t going to help, so I put it back into my purse without even opening any of the messages.
A female’s voice says my name from the foot of the lobby. This is it, I think to myself. Just act cool. Act collected.
The moment I look up, I have to stop myself from gasping. The image I had of Ingrid in my mind is nothing like the real Ingrid standing in front of me. Ingrid is tall; a tallness that makes her self conscious enough to walk around slouching her shoulders to take off a few inches. Her body is lengthy, flat and awkward looking. Her clothes, too, pair well with the way she carries herself; awkward and dully colored as they hang off of her skinny limbs. Her eyes are brown, but her hair is the color of rich red wine; it’s held back into a low pony tail that barely passes her neck. When she sees me, she gives me a wide toothy smile before adjusting her glasses, despite them slipping down her small, sharp nose again.
“You must be Ingrid,” I shake her hand; it’s gentle and clammy in mine. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Likewise.” Her voice is small, timid and fragile. “I’m assuming…G-Garrett told you about me?”
My muscles tense; I’m under the impression she’s nervous, too. “Yes, yes he did.”
“Him and I talked. He told me you would most likely be coming down to meet me. Um…my lunch break is in three minutes. Would you like to go out for coffee? There’s a nice café around the corner.”
“Yes, I would love to,” I tell her without thinking it through. She smiles again; a smile that is genuine and innocent. I almost feel unworthy, being near a presence so pure.
“Are you sure? If you don’t like coffee, we could go someplace else?”
I chuckle, though I feel bad for doing so given she’s truly concerned about my liking towards coffee. “Trust me. Coffee is fine.”
“Great! Let me just get my things,” she looks down at my luggage. “Oh, dear. I doubt you want to carry that with you. I’ll ask the receptionist if she can hold it for you.”
I can’t even oppose before Ingrid takes the luggage and carries it to the receptionist’s desk.
“Hello, Cathy. Would you mind holding this for—”
“No, Ingrid,” she says irately; she doesn’t even look up from her computer she’s typing at.
“Right. S-sorry for bothering you,” Ingrid turns to me and gives me an apologetic smile. “It’s fine. I’ll just take this to my office space.”
I nod, following Ingrid out of the lobby to the offices. Before I leave the area, I look at Cathy and give her the nastiest look I can muster that generates a confused and taken aback expression from her.
Walking past the cubicles gives me unpleasant nostalgia about my previous job—the cramped work spaces, the rude co-workers and hours sitting at desks and working for someone who doesn’t appreciate your efforts. I would expect Ingrid to have worked at a higher-end firm as opposed to a hole in the wall like this.
But I’m not here for that, so I let it go and try to keep up with Ingrid’s long (and clumsy) stride.
“It will be safe underneath my desk,” she assures me when we arrive at her small workspace. “No one comes here much anyway—”
Suddenly, a man so large he struggles to powerwalk to Ingrid’s cubicle rushes over in a stressed and angry haze. He doesn’t even acknowledge my presence when him and Ingrid are face to face.
“You told me you would make copies of these before your lunch break,” he snaps up at her, papers in hand. The sweat on his forehead glistens underneath the cheap lighting.
“I’m sorry, sir, I-I had to meet up with someone who is expecting me.”
“I don’t care if the Queen of England is expecting you. I expected these copies twenty minutes ago! You’re going to have to work through your lunch to get these done.”
“Sir, I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t think you have the authority to keep me from my lunch.”
He says nothing, but instead of being happy at her comeback, she grows even more regretful at her words.
“I’m sorry. I’ll get copies of these right away,” she says lowly.
He throws them carelessly into her arms. “Thank you.”
When he leaves, stomping heavily down the aisle, Ingrid looks at me sadly.
“I’m sorry to inconvenience you like this,” she says.
“Don’t worry. We can just meet in the break room.”
“Are you sure?”
She clutches the papers to her chest and sighs tiredly, “Okay. On the bright side, no one spends much time in the break room during lunch anyway.”
“How do you like your coffee?”
Ingrid scrambles around the break room, making coffee here and producing copies there. I offered to help, but she declined politely, feeling that it would be rude to have me assist her with her work.
“Black,” I answer. “Two sugars, please.”
As she begins making the coffee, I see her wear a surprised look. “Black? How do you survive?” she laughs. “I usually dilute my coffee with cream and sugar.”
I chuckle without answering, because I’m unsure why I like the bitter taste of cream-less coffee so much.
After a few minutes, she sets two cups of coffee on the table where we sit. The copy machine chugs and struggles to make out Ingrid’s request in the background, but I try my best to tune out the noise.
“I’m sorry,” Ingrid says to me. “I didn’t expect this to be how you and I would meet.”
“I really don’t mind,” I tell her truthfully, sipping my coffee. “Duty calls.”
Her hands tap nervously against the coffee cup, occasionally twisting it around and tracing patterns into the side with her long nails.
“If you don’t mind me asking, how did you end up working here in the first place?”
Ingrid looks up at me, her eyes filled with answers she is unsure she should give.
“I made questionable choices,” she explains. “And those choices came with consequences. But I don’t mind working here. It’s comfortable, and there’s a simple routine every day.”
“But the way your boss speaks to you is questionable as well,” I point out. She knows I’m right, but shrugs it off with a small smile.
“People with power use it in strange ways,” she responds.
Silence. The copy machine still roars in the corner.
“When Garrett spoke with you, what did he say exactly?” I ask her, knowing I’m entering territory I can now never escape.
“He asked me to talk to you about my experience.”
“Your experience working for Sebastian?”
She shifts awkwardly in her seat like Sebastian’s name is an ill omen. “Yes.”
I know exactly why. I know Garrett’s motive for the most part.
“Because I don’t want you to go through what I went through,” she answers. “I can see you’re a strong woman. A stronger woman than I am, for sure.” Her voice falters a bit at that statement. “And I know why you’ve been working closely with him; he has plans on taking Garrett’s place when he officially announces the news of his retirement. And if the Board isn’t supportive of Sebastian taking the chair, that would mean big trouble for him. For everyone. God knows William and Patrick don’t want the responsibility.”
I look around the room as if there are people possibly eavesdropping. Then I look at Ingrid; Garrett told her everything. Garrett told her everything I know and more, I’m sure.
I let her speak further. “I’m sure you know that I quit being Sebastian’s publicist about a month ago. He was my client for about two months.”
“Why did you quit?”
“Because Sebastian...Sebastian hurt me in a way that prevented me from being able to fulfil my duties to him as a press representative.”
“He hurt you?” It’s hard for me to imagine the Sebastian I know doing something like that.
“Yes. It’s my fault, actually. I became too attached.” She drinks her coffee, longer than needed to gather her words. “I...I ended up trusting him in a way that I shouldn’t have. I liked him. A lot. I mean...a lot. I still...I...I mean, I’m still trying to get over the events. My therapy has gone well so far. But I don’t think that’s something you wanted to know; I don’t mean for you to pity me.”
“How do I know you’re—”
“—not lying?” she finishes for me. “I had a feeling you would say something like that. I’m not asking you to believe. I just want you to hear where I’m coming from. I know you detest Garrett; when I mentioned his name earlier, I saw how uncomfortable you had gotten. To be frank with you, I feel the same way towards him.”
“Then why are you acting out his orders like one of his pawns?”
“Because I don’t have a choice.”
“You always have a choice.”
“Not in this instance. I wish I was as strong as you to feel like I do have a choice.”
I lower my voice to a whisper. “If Garrett is...blackmailing you, you have every right to act out against that.”
“I can’t, Leslie. If I did, it would hurt Sebastian more than he ever hurt me. Regardless of what he did, I don’t think I could ever live with myself if I let that happen.”
“So you’re saying that you’re doing this for Sebastian? Even though he hurt you?”
“Because I still love him,” she admits. “And even though he’ll never love me back, I still want him to be happy.”
All I can do is stare at her. Since this month began, I’ve had people tell me stories about Sebastian from different perspectives, different experiences. I think I know him, but then I believe I don’t. Everything just seems gray and bleak now.
“Ingrid, I have a strong feeling that Garrett doesn’t want you to tell me all of this.”
“I know. He wants me to tell you about Sebastian’s fault, but not his. Which is why what I’m going to tell you can’t ever leave this room.”
I nod. “I promise it won’t.”
“I’m serious. I could lose everything. Everything.”
I see the distress on her face. The same distress I saw on Loretta’s face. The connection is causing a fear and anxiety to build up inside of me.
“I’m serious, too. I promise I won’t tell anyone.”
I don’t know whether or not Ingrid believes me. But I know she’s desperate; she sees me as her only hope. I’m just waiting for her words to begin so I can connect the dots for this mess to make sense. As of now, I’m holding my coffee cup so tightly that I fear the hot contents might spill out. I know Ingrid is going to explain what happened, and I don’t know if I’m ready to hear it.