The Perfect Dilemma
I stared at the email and tried not to vomit all over my keyboard. Was she actually kidding me? My boss had asked me – and the rest of our brow-beaten team – to collate a spreadsheet of daily actions that we needed to tick off hour by hour, in between all the actual doing that our jobs entailed. We had to note down the number of emails we sent, the number of phone calls we made, the exact changes we made to each line of merchandise, the specific wording used to describe every single aspect of a product that we could possibly think of. It was micro management at its absolute finest, well below my pay grade, one of many instances, and I was sick of it.
I wouldn’t have minded if said boss was marginally older than me, substantially more experienced and significantly more qualified, but she wasn’t. She was Jessie Minchin, my senior school nemesis, whose boyfriend just so happened to be one of my best friends. She was jealous of our friendship, and this was her way of paying me back – by messing with a career I’d set my sights on since the time I received a ‘Fashion Wheel’ toy for my eighth birthday.
I inhaled deeply and added another line to my never-ending to do list. Fine. If the boss said I had to do it, then I would do it. But I was determined to get out of there. If not the department, then the company. I didn’t want to leave, but I couldn’t take much more of the silent treatments, the rude dismissals in meetings, the constant eyeballing, and the completely unfair negative performance review she gave me last month. I just needed a few more months of working at Glimmer on my CV then I could hotfoot it to the next nearest high street retailer to do the sort of work a real merchandise assistant would do.
“Did you read it yet?” Bali, another member of the team, rolled her eyes at me across the desk.
“I’m pretending I didn’t.”
“Where does she get off? Seriously?” Bali shook her head, sending bronze curls flying about her elfin face. “How are we supposed to get any damn work done if we’re constantly writing emails about the emails we’ve sent, or having meetings about the meetings we’re about to have? It’s crazy. We work in fashion. It’s supposed to be more fun than this.”
I felt terrible. I was the only one who knew Jessie before I started working at Glimmer. I could only assume her unreasonable expectations of the whole of our ten-strong team were for my benefit. “She has issues, clearly.”
“Well, lunch is looking way more appealing right now. Fancy a walk down the high street?”
“I’d love to, but I’ve actually had an idea I want to work on.”
“Sounds cool, babe. Just don’t let the witch get her hands on it, otherwise it won’t be your idea for long.”
I winked in the affirmative. I was sort of thankful it wasn’t just me Jessie vented her issues on – everyone felt it. It would have been mildly amusing had it not been for the fact we were starting to lose some really good people. We could have been doing some awesome things, making waves in the fashion industry, but our greatest minds were leaving in droves. I waved a hand as Bali left and returned to my screen. A new email flashed up, from none other than Jessie herself. I took another deep breath and opened it.
“I didn’t receive your end of day report yesterday. Send now.”
A flicker of panic shot up through my chest. I’d sent it to her. I swore I had. Shit, I hoped I had. I checked in my sent items and there it was. I opened it, clicked forward and typed in her email address with a metaphorical middle finger held up at the screen.
“Hi Jessie, here it is. I sent it to you at 5:02pm. Maybe it slipped into your spam folder. Best, Keeley.”
Silence dragged its feet until I gave up expecting a reply and turned back to the idea I’d had. Ever since I set up my first Barbie shop and sold makeshift clothes to my friends’ Barbie dolls, I’d wanted to help people look their absolute best. I loved watching people try on clothes they wouldn’t have looked twice at, then looking back at themselves open-mouthed because their reflection was knock-out gorgeous. I loved experimenting with new fashions and unexpected accessories to add a unique twist to someone’s style. Part of my job included designing the looks worn by the shop mannequins, and I would have a field day in the warehouse dressing and undressing what were, in effect, life-sized dolls. But, all that being said, I wasn’t playing anymore. I was deadly serious about my career, and so good at it, sales of all the items I dressed the windows with sold out within days, if not hours.
Fashion stylists were my heroes, but I knew as well as anyone, only the rich and famous could afford to spend the sort of fees the good stylists charged. My dream was to create some sort of virtual personal stylist that anyone, of any budget, could use. I’d already scribbled down a few basic points, but I didn’t have much of a clue about building apps or using technology and data, so I parked that while I continued to dream about the perfect solution.
My thoughts were rudely interrupted by an email, finally, from Jessie. But, I could see it wasn’t a direct reply before I clicked on it. In fact, it looked like a conversation I hadn’t been a part of at all. The subject line read: “RE: Not long now… (evil laugh)”
Before I had chance to open the email, another one came through, titled: “Recall: RE: Not long now… (evil laugh)”
And of course, whenever I saw someone wanting to recall an email, I wanted to open it straight away, so I did. And if I’d suspected Jessie Minchin was a nasty piece of work before the email, it became as clear as day now.
“Hey babe, I got the paperwork through from Jilly, so it’s now only a matter of time. That little bitch won’t know what’s hit her. First, the ‘casual’ updates to my marketing director, then the shitty review, and now this. I’m going to performance manage that girl out of here in no time at all.”
I scanned down the thread. I knew she was talking about me, but I needed to see my name in black and white. The recipient seemed to be a friend who worked somewhere else, no one I recognised, but she certainly knew me by name.
“How’s it going with Operation Get Keeley The Fuck Out Of There?”
I nodded my approval at the ingenious project title, then read further down to an older message.
“The review couldn’t have gone better – for me anyway, lol. I could tell she was trying not to cry. I laid out everything she’s doing wrong – embellished of course – and she couldn’t get a word in. Hopefully, this will be enough to make her resign. If not, I have more tricks up my sleeve. I don’t want to be looking at that face every day for longer than I have to. It brings it all back, the fact she cheated with Rhys.”
I grit my teeth. I did not cheat with her ex. He was like a brother to me – it would have been plain ick. But this was stupid. She was stupid. Who in their right mind would write all of this on a company email? I had everything I needed now to get Jessie fired, and she knew it. I saw two more emails pop into my inbox from her, asking me to go see her immediately. She was having a laugh. Not a chance. I clicked print, swiped the copy from the printer and practically ran to the stairwell. I took the steps two at a time until I reached the exec floor, where all the HR managers sat.
I paced down the corridor, fury seeping into my bones. Down the corridor I saw a sign above a door saying “Norbert McCarthy, HR Manager.” I made a beeline for it. The door was partly open but I knocked anyway. I might have been fuming, but I still had manners.
I heard a shuffling of papers and a throaty cough. “Um, yes? Come in.”
I pushed open the door, hardly seeing what was in front of me, and strode up to the desk. I had it all memorised – everything I’d intended to say – which was just as well because the man sitting at the other side of the standard issue cubicle desk was, frankly, disarming. His blue eyes were wide, as though he was half-surprised, half-amused by the hastiness of my entrance. His suit jacket pressed flush against a seemingly hard chest, looking way more expensive than it probably was. I mean, an HR Manager was hardly likely to make more than fifty thou a year, right? Maybe I was in the wrong job? His dirty blonde hair was curled in such a way it could have been trimmed by Charles Worthington himself, and the hand that tapped a pen against the desk was soft and un-calloused, meaning this guy worked behind a desk, hard. That last thought sent a flush of heat through my body and I shook my head to get rid of it. Focus. I needed to focus.
“How can I help you?” The man smiled like I’d just made his damn day and I didn’t know whether to be infuriated at his apparent arrogance or swoon because I’d never seen a smile so devastating in all my life. Seriously… wrong job.
“Mr. McCarthy…” I began.
“Please,” he interrupted, with a look that said – weirdly – he was thoroughly enjoying this. “Call me Norbert.”
I opened my mouth to continue, but the idea that this incredibly beautiful man had been graced with a name like Norbert threw me for a loop. I cleared my throat. “Um, yes, Norbert. Well, I’m here to make a complaint about my boss, Jessie Minchin.”
At those words, the smile fell from his face, and he sat up straight, filling his suit even more than I would have thought possible, and clicked open the pen, which I now noted was a very expensive Caran D’Ache. “Go on,” he said, with a slight frown.
I sighed out a breath, relieved to have someone’s attention. “I hate doing this,” I said, quietly. Because I actually did. As miserable as Jessie made our lives, and as evil as her actions had been, she was still a human being with sensitivities, issues, buttons and weaknesses. If I’d thought she would be receptive to help, that’s the route I would have taken. But sometimes, people can’t be salvaged; they just have to be removed. “Our boss is sabotaging our efforts to make this company money.” Get straight to the point, Keeley. The one with a bottom line drawn beneath it. HR professionals claim they’re all about the people, but really, they’re all as driven by profits as the next person.
“How?” he squinted as he looked up at me. His voice was soft and there was no judgement behind it. It was as though he knew I wasn’t reporting Jessie to be vindictive; I simply wanted to do my job.
“She’s giving us unreasonable, unnecessary, time-consuming admin tasks to do, and then demanding we re-do the spreadsheets and timesheets in our own time. Most of us work overtime, long hours, because we love what we do and we care about the store and the customer experience. We give everything we can. So, when we’re asked to carry out these non-essential tasks that don’t contribute to the bottom line, it feels like our time isn’t respected, like we don’t deserve a life outside of Glimmer.”
I looked down at my fingers curling around each other and drummed up the courage to continue. “And… well, I think some of it is personal.” I handed him the email and waited, bracing myself, as he read down the page.
I felt his eyes flick up at me, then return to the email, then he breathed out slowly. “We’ll need to look into this,” he said, after a painfully long pause. “In the meantime, I’m moving you to a different department.”
I almost choked on my own saliva. “What?” At the most I had expected they would pull Jessie up on a few things. I even expected some sort of revenge on her part that would lead to me resigning anyway. I did not expect this: to be moved to another part of the business. It felt… extreme. “Where?”
Norbert leaned forward and clasped his hands together on the desk. I noticed his chiselled cheek flutter as he ground his jaw. He really was beautiful. How had I never seen him around? Why wasn’t there some sort of Norbert Fan Club amongst the employees? He had to be gay. No one who was that gorgeous and worked in fashion was heterosexual, or – my eyes strayed to his ring finger – unmarried.
“That’s up to you,” he said, the corner of his mouth twitching as though he wanted to smile but was stopping himself. “Where would you like to work?”
“Um, I…” I couldn’t believe he was asking me this. Surely he couldn’t just put me in any department without checking with the director of it first? Besides, I wanted to keep doing what I loved: styling and merchandising. “Well, I like what I do. I love to dress people, advise them, empower them to be their unique selves.”
“It that how you would describe merchandising?” He looked back at me, quizzically.
“Well, no. Not exactly. But it’s where I think the fashion world is heading. People want to embrace their individuality but don’t know where to start. They want to try new things but don’t have time to shop around. They want an expert’s opinion on what looks good, but they don’t know who to ask.”
Norbert cocked his head. “And you think we can offer that?”
“I’m not sure yet,” I replied, honestly. “I’m still thinking through the details… how we might create something digital. You know, an app or something.” I almost shrivelled up hearing myself talk. I sounded naïve, uninformed and idealistic, but this HR Manager didn’t seem to agree.
“Then I suggest we place you in digital development,” he said, seriously. “You can shadow the developers, learn how to make software programmes, understand what’s possible. Then you can design a product or service you think our customers would pay good money for.”
My hand roamed around for something to hold onto and gripped the nearest chair. “Why?”
“Because it took guts to come up here. Because you’ve raised a serious issue on behalf of your colleagues. Because you’ve brought to my attention something that could have been significantly damaging the effectiveness of a whole department. And because…” he glanced at the paper on his desk, “no one deserves to be treated like this.”
He looked back at me with an expression of such sincerity I almost drowned in it. I also hadn’t failed to notice my heartrate had racketed up and was now vibrating inside my chest. Not only was he gorgeous, he’d further ingratiated himself by handing the opportunity of a lifetime to me on a platter.
“Thank you,” I said, in almost a whisper, glancing down at the floor.
“I’m pleased to see you didn’t cry in your review. She doesn’t deserve your tears.”
I lifted my head and stared at him, my throat suddenly dry. “It isn’t true, you know, what she said. I didn’t cheat with anyone.” I didn’t know why I was telling him that; it wasn’t any of his business and it had nothing to do with my work, but I felt as though I needed to lay that out there. I couldn’t have this Adonis believing I was ever the ‘other woman’ in anyone’s relationship.
When he spoke, his voice was also quiet. “I believe you.” He watched me steadily then stood suddenly and walked around the desk. He towered over me, making me feel like a waif. “Take a long lunch break while I get security to collect your things. There’ll be a desk waiting for you on the floor below. Will you be coming to the company update later?”
I shuffled towards the door in a daze. “Um, yes. I haven’t been to one before. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
He chuckled under his breath. “Don’t get your hopes up – it’s mainly a financial update, but it would be good to see you there.”
“Great,” I forced a smile onto my bewildered face. As I stepped through the door, a thought occurred to me. “Um, who will I be reporting to?”
His face was perfectly poker-like when he answered. “Me.”
“You? Since when do HR managers get involved in digital development?”
“They don't,” he replied.
I narrowed my eyes. "But, I'm confused. You're an HR Manager..."
“Actually, I'm not." He placed a hand to the small of my back as he followed me out.
"But it says right there." I pointed to the sign secured to the door of his office. "Norbert McCarthy, HR Manager."
One of his cheeks hollowed as he bit back a smile, and his hand slid around my waist as he stepped past. "Yeah, Norbert doesn't work here anymore." He strode off in the other direction and I spun around to face his retreating back.
He kept on walking. "He left. Three months ago to be exact."
"So..." I had to raise my voice so it carried down the corridor after him. "Who are you?"
He thrust his hands into his pockets and spun back towards me on one heel, a grin stretching from ear to ear. "James," he said, walking backwards.
I failed to hide my annoyance that whoever this man was, he'd duped me into thinking he was someone else. Who exactly had I just complained about my boss to? Who knew my own manager hated me because she thought I'd cheated with her ex? Who was I actually working for? Had it all been a joke? I couldn't help but pout when I retorted, "Well, that's cute, James. Now, come on. Who the hell are you?"
He stopped suddenly and cocked his head to one side. "Cute? I've been called many things, but cute is not one of them..."
I opened my mouth to correct him. I didn't mean I thought he was cute, just the little joke he'd just played on me, but his next words, which he delivered like a punch before turning back on his heel and walking away, shut me the hell up.
"Most people just call me the CEO."
I waited backstage for the room to fill. Events like this, where I had to speak in front of several hundred people, usually got my blood pumping, but today was even more exciting. In fact, today was shaping up to be one of the most interesting days I’d had in a long time.
It started off like all the rest. My secretary plying me with my morning coffee while I caught up on emails. A weekly meeting with my directors, then a conference call with the area managers, then an update from the finance team. Then a reminder about some leadership training course I’d agreed to attend. That was the reason I was in Norbert’s office. He booked me onto the course months ago, saying the mindfulness-based one-day retreat was the latest in leadership development, that it would be transformative. I’d completely forgotten about it, and it was this weekend, so I had to rummage through his old folders for any kind of paperwork that might have been helpful.
But, less than five minutes into my rummaging, the course had been plain forgotten, all because some raven-haired firecracker burst into the office, assuming I was HR, and let rip about her boss. It was perhaps a little unethical of me to not correct her straight away, but it was kind of amusing that she didn’t know who I was. Refreshing. Usually, people either avoided me like I carried some plague or other, or they practically chased me down wanting to get my opinion on something or to grovel for a promotion. I realised this girl was either very new or had been purposely sheltered from the various goings on in the company.
To be fair, I wasn’t a Philip Green or a Richard Branson. I didn’t particularly like attention or the spotlight. I was ok with doing things like this – standing on a stage in front of my employees to update them on the state of the nation, as it were – but I didn’t want to have my face plastered everywhere, not even on the ‘About Us’ section of the website. So, it wasn’t entirely weird this girl didn’t know who I was. It was, however, enjoyable.
First, there was the outfit. She wore a tight little grey pinafore dress over a crisp white shirt, and a tie – an actual tie. She wore black boots that reached up over knees with little heels raising her up to about five foot three. After my eyes had grazed over the outfit, which was a little crazy, but cute, they landed back on her face. She looked like a quirky doll. Big, red-rimmed glasses over big brown eyes, and long dark hair pulled back into a low ponytail. As she talked, her full pink lips moved at a million miles an hour, making the little freckles on her cheeks come to life. I had never seen anyone look like this before – like a cross between Britney Spears in her Hit Me days, and Christina Hendricks in Mad Men. It was the edgiest look I’d ever seen, and as the CEO of a fashion business, I guess that was saying something. And tight as it was, the dress was still conservative. It covered her completely. But, as the ache in my pants testified, it was sexy as sin.
Within seconds of being in the same room as her, relishing her spark, inhaling her soft floral fragrance and trying not to drool over my desk, I decided I needed more of her. It was handy she’d come to complain about her boss, because I had a genuine reason to move her. Closer. Create a special project for her. The ideas she had were bright, but they weren’t developed and may not ever be; I couldn’t know for sure. I’d enjoy a few weeks having her work for me, then reluctantly move her back downstairs to continue in a role she was clearly good at.
I chose not to think about the fact this would likely be a temporary arrangement as I stepped up to the stage. The lights pointing at me were so bright I could hardly make out anyone beyond the first five rows. I stepped up to the podium, glanced at the clear Perspex autocue then proceeded to ignore it for the next ten minutes. I didn’t need a script. I spoke from the heart instead; I always did. The autocue was merely a formality – more to make my staff feel better than anything else. I generally flew by the seat of my pants in most scenarios, something that brought the majority of my team out in hives. But, it hadn’t failed me yet, and as this business and several others before it would agree, it wasn’t likely to.
I began by thanking everyone for taking time out of their day to be there, then got straight into the performance figures. I celebrated the stores that were performing exceptionally well, and those that had been floundering, covering off the plans I had to inject some life into them. I talked about the new flagship concept and how it was going to put our well-placed Carnaby Street store on the map for good. And throughout all of this, my eyes roamed the room. She said she was going to come but I couldn’t see her anywhere. After about five minutes of looking and not finding, my chest hollowed out. Maybe I’d freaked her out telling her who I really was.
Just as that thought began to make me feel like a prized idiot for taking advantage of her ignorance and duping her, my eyes found hers. Like magnets across a crowded room, her brown eyes met my blue ones and for a second, I lost my train of thought. She was gazing back at me, riveted. I couldn’t believe that what I was saying was all that interesting, but she looked as though she was watching a box-office smashing blockbuster movie. My previous wilted chest puffed out immediately and I regained my composure. I didn’t just regain it, I damn well smashed it. Coming to life, I strolled across the stage, gesturing, making impromptu jokes, calling out individuals who’d done amazing work that quarter. None of it had been scripted and I could feel the anxiety pouring off the stage manager standing in the wings.
I overran by ten minutes, because I didn’t want to lose the feeling of having her eyes glued to me, even as I walked up and down the stage. I knew, in a way, it was unprofessional, but I’d never taken such liberties in my entire career, and what the hell? The teams were entertained, so why not? As I stepped down from the stage, I glanced at her once more and quirked a smile. I was buzzing with adrenaline but another sensation had also settled in my belly. It was the realization that I cared what she thought. I cared about her opinion more than anyone else’s. Which was new. It was also absurd. And if the Group HR policy about relationships between colleagues being forbidden was set in stone, quite unfortunate.
I was, in a word, fucked.
I dressed with even more care than usual and entered the office building with my heart thrumming against my throat. I couldn’t sleep, instead replaying the memories of meeting James – the CEO for crying out loud – in an HR Manager’s office, and then watching him outright own a room filled with about a thousand people. And not only own it, but slice through it with his eyes until they held mine rigid. I think I sucked my breath in through the whole thing, and I certainly had to watch the replay on the intranet because I couldn’t for the life of me remember anything he’d said. God, I was screwed. I fancied my boss. Not just my boss – my CEO!
The lack of sleep gave me more time to plan my outfit. I wore a plaid mini kilt, black tights and patent Mary Janes, with a cashmere boatneck sweater I’d snagged at a sample sale – a merchandise assistant’s salary would never have paid for that. I’d wrapped my hair up in a giant bun on the top of my head hoping it would add a couple of inches to my height. If I had to keep craning to look up at my new boss, I was going to get a crick neck.
With my signature blood red glasses perched on my nose, I settled down in front of my new computer and sipped my takeout latte.
“Well, you’re new,” came a voice beside me. I looked around and found I was being gawped at by a guy, around my age, ginger-haired, a little spotty, but with a wide, white-toothed smile.
“Not new exactly,” I said, holding out my hand. “I came from merchandising, Keeley.”
He reached over and shook it. “Greg. Or Ron, as most people call me.” He rolled his eyes.
“Harry Potter?” I winced.
“Damn that franchise.”
“Why do you have so many screens?” I nodded to the three giant ones hemming him into his desk.
“Because I have so many brains,” he winked. “Actually, this one is for the running sales figures from the website; this one is user activity on the home page; and this one…” He turned the screen towards me. “This is just for my own personal viewing pleasure.”
I squinted at approximately four different YouTube windows playing different music videos, another window playing what looked like Fortnite, and another that looked like Spotify.
“You’re doing the millennials proud, I see.”
“Yeah, terrible attention span. Need to consume everything, all at the same time.” We grinned at each other. “So, what brings you up here?”
“Oh, well. Weird story,” I replied, not quite knowing where to begin. It wasn’t the typical tale of career advancement. “I had an issue with my boss, I talked to James about it…”
“Um, yeah. James—” I realised with a surge of embarrassment I didn’t know his last name.
I shrugged, hoping that was the right answer.
“Yes,” I rushed out. James Royce. So, that was his name. I would consider it tattooed across my brain. “He put me here to learn about digital development.”
“Do you know anything about digital development?”
I shook my head. “Nope, nothing.”
“Ok, well, I’m a millennial. I like to have a million different plates spinning in the air at once. Tell me what you want to know. You have my full-ish attention.”
I’d managed to avoid her for a whole week. I even managed to only think about her maybe fifty times during the relentlessly boring leadership development day. Once I’d made sure she was settled and knew who everyone in the digital team was, and how she could reach me if she needed to – via my secretary – I’d purposely kept my distance. And yes, I realise how nonsensical that sounds. I fired her old boss so it wasn’t like Keeley needed to be moved; I’d moved her to be closer to me, in work and location. And now I was backtracking like a moonwalking pony and trying to avoid all possible human contact with her. But, as it turned out, absence does make the heart grow fonder, which is why I found myself hovering over her desk at ten a.m. one morning waiting for her to come back from a training workshop with Ron Weasley.
I heard her glittering laugh before the sparkles appeared before my eyes. And I mean that literally. She was wearing sequins. A genuine eighties batwing sweater with a giant rainbow-coloured star across the front. And stone-washed jeans. I mean, ok, we worked in fashion, but it was hardly a party. For a second there, I thought I’d just employed Tiffany. Her face flushed the second she spotted me waiting for her.
“Did we have a meeting?” she asked, hurriedly.
“Not a planned one, no. But I would like an update from you,” I said, forcing myself to sound professional – stern even. I couldn’t afford for anyone to see through me to the truth. That there was a lot more to me placing her here than her sheer willingness and a good idea.
“Um, of course. When? Now?”
I glanced around the faces all looking up at me and held their gazes until they blinked away, back to their own business.
“I’m pretty busy, but I can talk over lunch?”
She hesitated, then bent down to reach into her bag. She pulled out a florescent pink lunchbox and packet of prawn cocktail flavoured crisps. “Ok.”
I had to shake my head in disbelief. She dined like a thirteen-year-old. “You can leave that here,” I said, kindly but firmly. “My car’s waiting outside.”
I held open the door to Pollen Street Social, pleased I was able to get a last-minute table. Not that it mattered – she seemed to have no idea how exclusive this place was. Put it this way, hers was the only bat-winged, sequinned sweater in the place. And I loved that.
The host pulled out a chair and she sat and glanced around. The second I sat opposite her, she leaned towards me and stage-whispered with the excitement of a child on Christmas Day. “Is that Simon le Bon?”
“The singer from Duran Duran?” I followed her gaze. “Yeah.” I spun back to face her, shaking my head. “How do you know Duran Duran? You must have been born about twenty years after their last hit record.”
She curled a hand over her heart. “I’m an old soul,” she smiled.
My eyebrows shot up. “Less of the ‘old soul’ please. I’m probably closer to his age than yours.”
She blushed instantly. “What can I say? I’m a bit of an eighties nut.”
“I can see that.” I glanced down at her sweater and swallowed. Close up, I could clearly see the mounds of two pert breasts beneath, so I quickly looked down at the menu. With both our eyes overly occupied with the Specials, I felt on slight safer ground, though I still questioned my sanity, and why on earth I thought bringing her to lunch was a good idea.
“So, what’s good here?” she asked.
“What’s good? I glanced up briefly. “It’s the Pollen Street Social. Everything’s good.”
She sighed, put down her menu and batted her eyelashes at me through her glasses. “I don’t doubt that, Mr. Royce. But I thought, seeing as you clearly frequent this place, you might have some recommendations.” She finished with a sweet smile that alone would have made my stomach flip, but hearing her call me Mr. Royce was almost a turn-on too far. I swallowed – again.
“The ravioli is good, and the sea bass. I like the ox cheek personally.”
“Great!” She dropped her menu onto the table. “I’ll have the ox cheek too.”
My eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Really? I would have had you down as a seafood girl.”
She sat back and crossed her denim-clad legs. “You don’t think I like red meat?”
My eyebrows couldn’t shoot up any further so a flush of blood crept up my neck instead. “No, I… I just figured…”
“That being a girl and all, I would be more into fish?”
“No,” I pouted. That’s not what I was thinking at all. I took a long sip of water in an attempt to wash away the current conversation.
“I had beef sandwiches in my lunch box,” she continued. “So, I guess ox cheek is the next best thing.”
I clapped a hand over my mouth to stop the water I spat out from flying everywhere. Next best thing? This place had a Michelin star. After mopping myself up with a napkin, I noticed a quirk of a smile on her lips. She was winding me up.
“So, tell me, Keeley. How are you getting on with this idea of yours?”
Instead of shrinking backwards like a lot of my employees would when put on the spot, her eyes brightened and she sat up, gleeful. “Oh my gosh, I’ve learned so much just by sitting in Digital, and I think I’ve come up with a way to make this work.”
I smiled politely, and prepared to fake some gushing. While I didn’t doubt she’d developed her idea, it had initially sounded like little more than a glorified personal shopping service. But I owed it to her to give it my full attention.
Half an hour later, my jaw was on the table, my plate had been cleaned and I’d hardly tasted a bite.
“So, it has the potential to expand into other offerings,” she went on. “Like light cosmetic surgery, diet and lifestyle coaching, hair consultations – pretty much anything related to personal image.”
She had just outlined an idea that no one else was doing. Her concept was a virtual image consultation. She envisioned an app that would take a whole host of personal details like height and waist measurements, as well as lifestyle information – the kind of work someone does, their hobbies and other responsibilities like children – and turn it into a fully personalised image plan. It would give people advice on the type of clothes that would suit their body shape, the kind of exercise regimes that would fit into their lives, all within their budget. Not only that, it could increase revenue by allowing other brands to sell through the app.
In short, it was a virtual fairy godmother that might well make Glimmer more money than it had made in a long time. She finished and looked back at me with wide eyes, awaiting my verdict.
“I think it has amazing potential,” I said, honestly.
“Yes I do,” I replied in all seriousness. “But, we don’t currently have budget for it. We’ll have to go cap in hand to the Group and ask if they will finance it.”
“The… the group?”
“Yes… Glimmer Fashion Group – GFG. In Boston.”
“Boston? As in Boston, Massachusetts?”
“Right. Ok.” She furrowed her brow, deep in thought. “And you need to go there to ask them for more money? You would do that?”
The next statement, for some inexplicable reason, made my chest swell. “Well, as a matter of fact, I’m scheduled to travel there the day after tomorrow for some meetings.” But the next statement was not planned by any part of my brain. It just came out and it was too late to retract it. “Why don’t you come with me? You could explain the concept to Lucas yourself.”
“Lucas?” Her cheeks paled and I noticed her knuckles – the ones belonging to the hand gripping her water – had turned white. I gently prized the glass out of her fingers. I didn’t want to have to explain a crushed crystal tumbler to the staff here; I wanted to come back again at some point.
“Yes. Lucas Hannigan. He’s my boss in the States.”
“You… your boss?”
“Yes,” I paced a hand on top of the one I’d just released the glass from. She was shaking. “He’s a pussycat. You don’t have to be nervous. And I can coach you.” Acutely aware I was touching her hand, I pulled away and ran my fingers through my hair instead.
She didn’t bat an eye. “How do you know he’s a pussycat?”
“I worked with him in the States for a year before moving back here. He’s not just a boss, he’s a good friend. Working for him didn’t even feel like work, you know? You’ll be fine, trust me.”
“So, you liked working for him?” She sipped again at her water while I watched her glistening pink lips rest on the glass.
“Yeah, I really did.”
She held my eyes, a slight frown clouding her brow, as she placed her glass back on the table. “If you enjoyed it so much, why did you move back?”
My head suddenly felt very heavy. I didn’t often talk about the reason I’d returned, mainly because it was pretty upsetting. “My father has Alzheimer’s and my mum is… well, physically challenged. She has severe arthritis, so she can’t move far or lift things. I couldn’t live three-thousand miles away knowing they needed me, if only to help pay for some bills. Care can be very expensive." My eyes flicked up from where they’d been focused on the tablecloth and I was shocked to see she had tears in her eyes. “Anyway, I’ve managed to move them both to a wonderful home. They’re looked after very well, but they only have me. I made a promise to visit every week. I can hardly do that if I’m living in the States.” I grinned to make light of the situation.
“But… your dreams and goals…” she said, quietly.
I cocked my head slightly. “I can still achieve them here.”
"But isn’t America the heart of retail? The place to be if you want to make it big?"
Without thinking, I reached across the table to put my hand over hers again, as much to reassure myself as her. The warmth that rose into my palm was instantly settling. I always felt a torrent of emotion when talking about my parents. I felt sadness, despair, but mostly guilt. Guilt that I wasn’t there more often, and that I’d already spent so many years away, first at university, then working all over the country, then in the States. They’d done so much for me but had hardly seen me since. Those feelings had risen again but one touch of Keeley’s hand melted them, completely.
"Not all dreams have to be about having a career," I smiled, reluctantly pulling my hand back again. What was with that? This strange need to be in contact with her? "Yes, there are still things I want to achieve but I can do all of it here, in London. I don’t know if you heard but we have this thing called the internet now…"
At first she looked confused, then she picked up her napkin and threw it at me. A bold move for a junior employee."I was trying to be sympathetic," she retorted, suppressing a smile.
"You succeeded. And I appreciate it. Now, what do you say? Fancy flying with me to the Land of the Free?"
To be continued...