he turned

And twisted thoughts that spin 'round my head
I'm spinning, oh I'm spinning, how quick the sun can drop away

And now my bitter hands cradle broken glass
Of what was everything
All the pictures have all been washed in black
Tattooed everything

All the love gone bad turned my world to black
Tattooed all I see, all that I am, all I'll be

I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life, 

I know you’ll be the sun in somebody else’s sky

But why, why, why

Can’t you be, can’t you be mine?

 

Black. Pearl Jam

the end

two years earlier

Zac took in the vision before him and knew, instantly, what he had to do. This woman was the one. He’d known it since he’d first laid eyes on her that day in Falcon’s offices. He’d let her go once and that had been almost too painful to bear but she hadn’t been ready. She’d needed time to come to her senses and heal. Staying away from her during those few months had been the hardest thing he’d ever had to do. In stark contrast, the last three months having her under his roof, sleeping in his bed, sharing his thoughts, his dreams, had been the happiest time of his life. He made a decision. I’ll do it tonight, he thought. I’ll take her home and seduce her, slowly, until she’s begging me to take her. Then, as she’s coming back down, I’ll take her face into my hands, kiss her gently, and ask her to marry me.

 

“Are you okay, madam?” Asked a passing waitress.

Lottie nodded mutely. But she wasn’t okay. She was far from okay. She knew, without a shadow of a doubt, she hadn’t got over Marcus. And she now knew, for certain, she never would. As much as she hated him and everything he’d done to her, she was tied to him by an invisible leash. She realised with a sense of dread that she’d only ever be able to pull so far away before he snapped her back like a helpless puppy. She knew there and then she needed to end things with Zac. It was as though she’d known all along she would only ever be able to love Marcus, however much she hated him. She should never have let things get this far with Zac. She needed to cut the cord and go it alone, completely alone. The second she made the decision, a small sense of relief cut through the unanchored longing she felt for Marcus. She couldn’t fight it, that was a fact. But she would no longer take advantage of someone else’s feelings for her. Gathering her courage, she unsteadily made her way back to the table where Zac waited for her expectantly, his eyes dizzy with feeling.

“Zac,” she whispered, as she sat down opposite him, taking his hands in hers. “We need to talk.”

the prologue

now

Zac

            There it was again. A tightening in my chest, like nausea, but it wasn’t. Whenever I’d felt this before, I tried to throw up, sometime successfully, sometimes not. But I couldn’t right now; I had company. She was sitting on the bed, waiting for instruction. I pushed her backwards, with enough force that she bounced back up a little from the mattress, making her small breasts jiggle excitedly. I knelt either side of her and took her nipples between my fingers until she winced. I felt nothing, apart from the uncontrollable but familiar clenching behind my breast bone. Lila grabbed the bottle of Laphroaig from my bedside table and began to dribble it across her stomach. Until I snatched it from her fingers. 

             I didn’t want her hands on that bottle. It was the very same bottle I’d been gifted at the launch of Skilld, and I’d been refilling it ever since. It was the only thing I’d drink whisky from. And I wanted to swig that scotch down. I took a few gulps, ignoring the burning sensation along the lining of my throat, and placed the bottle on the floor, out of her reach. I crawled up over her until my dick was above her face. I waited until she’d latched on and started to suck, before I inched over to the bedside table and snorted two of the ten lines I’d carefully carved out. I settled down for the ride – coke always made me last longer. Lila was going to have to work doubly hard. But that was fine; she’d get a big tip. 

             After ten minutes I felt almost raw. I pulled out of her mouth and crawled back down. I could see the relief in her eyes. I pulled on a condom and drove into her. She threw her head back, with a look of sheer joy that I knew was authentic. The professionals queued up for my business, because they knew I gave as good as I got. I moved smoothly inside her, watching her eyes roll back and feeling her hips buck against mine. I felt the tell-tale shiver, and without thinking, broke my one rule and looked down at her face.  

            There she fucking was again. The honey-blonde hair, the big, grey saucer-like eyes, the soft pink lips whispering my name, laced with ecstasy. She loved me then; I knew she did. I could still feel her small hands kneading my back, her home-manicured nails decorating my shoulder blades as she came.

            I yanked myself backwards, out of Lila, and flung her over onto her hands and knees. I needed to not see her face. The clenching worsened. My throat ached. Lottie fucking Matheson. I focused on the skin, taut across Lila’s back, on the dark hair snaking between her shoulders, and forced myself to come. 

            “Jesus, baby,” Lila panted. “That was just the best. We don’t have to call it a day just yet, you know.”

            “Yes we do; I have work to do. But thanks,” I said, pulling the condom off and my jeans on. “You know the drill, gorgeous.”

            “Yeah, yeah, I’m going. You have my account details, right?”

            “Sure do. There’ll be a nice little extra waiting for you.”

            “You’re a darling.” 

            She stood on her tiptoes to brush her lips against mine. She tasted of me. 

            “See you again soon, I hope.” She winked and I watched, emotionless, as she closed the door behind her.

            I picked up the whisky and threw some more down my throat. The clenching hadn’t gone away, but there was no way I was going to throw up perfectly good Laphroaig tonight. I snorted a few more lines and switched on the TV. Porn played out in front of my eyes, but for once, I didn’t want to while away the rest of the night watching big beefy idiots boning clueless, vapid women, even though it was usually the only thing that kept me numb. Tonight, I wanted a change. Horror, suspense, murder; anything that made me feel marginally better about the world, and less like it was a fucking drag of a place to be, unless you were Marcus fucking Armstrong. Or someone who wasn’t Baron Morecambe-Cheney’s allegedly pathetic excuse for a son. I selected The Purgeand settled back against my Egyptian cotton-clad pillows, clutching the bottle to my stomach.

            Lila had been a good distraction for about thirty minutes. For that short moment, she’d taken my mind off my father. I hadn’t thought about the way he’d dismissed me, again, when I visited his hospital bedside on Harley Street earlier that day. If it hadn’t been for me, he wouldn’t even be in that joint; he’d still be at an NHS hospital in some grotty London suburb. There was no wonder the man hadn’t showed me or my sisters any love; his arteries had been clogged up to the nines, and his heart had been literally limping along for most of his life. I wished the heart attack had finished him off. If I’d thought, back when I was fifteen years old, that keeping the family business in our name was a fleeting insistence on his part, I was wrong. On his deathbed, his wish was a hundred fold. It was all he cared about. More than my mother. More than my sisters. More than me. More than life itself. I was the male heir who’d been born to take over MC Industries. Only, I didn’t want it. And he was going to die making me feel as guilty and shameful and worthless as he could. 

            His presence in the city hung over my head like a boulder. I wasn’t used to him orchestrating the family, let alone from a hospital bed in the same city I lived in. He was usually out in LA at the MCI headquarters, or in Africa or Chile at one of the mines. Since birth, I’d been expected to follow his footsteps into MCI. I’d refused because I wanted a different life. I wanted to do things my way; to create my own businesses, become a success entirely in my own right. So he’d disowned me. 

            I was still given an allowance, an apartment overlooking the Thames and the use of the family cars, despite the fact they were held in a state of the art storage facility on the same farmland in Kent that my older sister inhabited. It wasn’t to be sniffed at, granted, but I knew why he’d given those things to me. It wasn’t because he cared and wanted me to have a decent roof over my head, or a set of wheels, or food on the table. It was because he didn’t want to lose face. He didn’t want anyone on his lofty rung of the social ladder to think he couldn’t afford for his son to live in the manner to which all Morecambe-Cheneys should be accustomed. It had hurt back then, his refusal to accept my choices, and then his determination to cut ties with me – his only son. But I’d had Eton, and then Edinburgh, and then Skilld, to keep me occupied. And then Lottie. I took another swig. Fuck. Get the fuck out of my head. 

            I would never be whole, at least not while he was still around to remind me of what a gigantic disappointment I was. Apparently, no amount of therapy would truly get me over the rucksack of shame and guilt I carried around with me, knowing I hadn’t lived up to my father’s expectations. I took another giant swig of whisky. My throat was almost numb now. I lit a cigarette. No-one smoked anymore; it was pretty much taboo. The best time to start, in my opinion. 

            The film came to an end but I didn’t really notice. Just saw the credits rolling. My mind had strayed, to the new marketing girl Jay had been rattling on about. I no longer cared. No-one we hired for that role ever had the stamina to see it through. They all had ideas above their station about what they wanted to do with Skilld – my business, my baby. They all wanted to do away with the one aspect of my business that was untouchable – the ad campaign that had got us to where we were. If I had to hear one more time that it isn’t working, that we’re not saying anything new, I swear I’ll throw a fist through a window. I’m the fucking boss around here. 

              I recalled the picture from her LinkedIn profile. Being part of the social networking giant gave me unlimited access to her account, so I knew everything – everything professional, that is – about her. She was seriously young, and her picture made her appear innocent, inexperienced even, but her references said otherwise. In fact, they were impeccable; she hadn’t put a foot wrong with her former employers. She was a devoted member of the community; she’d worked in soup kitchens, she’d campaigned for charities, and apparently read extensively in her spare time. In other words, she probably didn’t have any sort of a life between going to work and becoming the ultimate model citizen. Only one word came to mind: boring. Why would I want someone like that in my business? Prim, straight, undynamic. But I wasn’t an idiot; I knew LinkedIn profiles told only half the story. No-one used them to broadcast their coke-fuelled weekends to every hiring manager in the country. 

               But something told me this one was the real deal; a boring, goody two-shoes who would irritate the shit out of me. But she looked pretty hot in her photo, so I’d at least have some fresh eye candy in the office for a couple of weeks. That would be it. There was no point in taking any further interest; she wouldn’t be hanging around. I’d been told over and over by the board not to fuck this one off. But screw them. This was my business. If it wasn’t for me, Skilld wouldn’t exist and neither would their jobs. Funny how they’d forgotten that, now we were part of a bigger pond. No, I thought I might have a little play with this one. The other ones were actually shit. They gave good interviews, but when push came to shove, they just wanted to overhaul the whole marketing campaign. Um, no. That wasn’t going to happen. Charlotte Matheson, might have ruined me, but she’d also made me, with that campaign. God, my fucking chest. Breathe, breathe.

               I reached for the painkillers and sleeping tablets, and knocked back two of each, with another slug of whisky for good measure. Fuck, fuck, fuck. It had been two and a half years for God’s sake. Why wouldn’t she get out of my head? Because she was in front of my eyes, all the time, that’s why. The press had dragged her through the gutters when her affair with Marcus, my investor, was leaked, but they sure had forgotten that quick. They adored her now, and she was milking it. Purely for professional reasons I assumed; Lottie would do anything to advance her businesses. But, for me, it was torture. Every goddamn paper, magazine, blog, podcast; she was there. Happy. Married. In fucking love.

                My eyes started to droop, finally. But I was kidding myself if I thought sleep would bring peace. I dreaded the dreams, the nightmares. I had many, and they all ended the same. With me suffocating.

                Some nights, my visions were filled with screams of rejection from my father, and belittling jibes from my mother – most of them real memories that my brain would never free. And some nights I dreamed of Lottie, sometimes Marcus, and the same ending loomed, as ever. Recently, my dreams had been about Skilld. My new Chairman, Helmut Schmidt, had made it clear he wasn’t happy with our performance. I knew it and I’d been kicking the shit out of my team. But I felt as though things had been slipping through my fingers. The new territories weren’t buying it. The testimonials, that had worked so incredibly well at launch, had stopped generating the same number of leads that they used to. I didn’t recognise my staff anymore... My eyelids dropped a little further. This was it; this was how my nights always ended. It was inescapable. A tirade of self-loathing had become my nightcap. And there was nothing I could do to stop it. 

chapter 1

Jess

             I was in career heaven. I looked up at the gleaming logo crowning the reception desk, took an inch of thigh flesh between my finger and thumb, and pinched hard. I couldn’t believe I was here. 

             “Welcome to Skilld,” smiled the receptionist, a petite brunette with myriad face piercings, perfectly befitting of the face of a young, hip start-up. “How can I help you?”

             “Hi!” I beamed, unable to contain my excitement. “It’s Jessica Childs. I’m the new VP Marketing. I was told I should ask for Jay Jackson.”

            “Sure. Let me get him for you. Take a seat.”

I practically skipped across to the voluminous, cloud-like sofas and sat down to fidget. I deserve to be here, I repeated to myself. I worked hard for this. They hired me for a reason. There was a name for my affliction: imposter syndrome. I’d risen up the ranks at Mesh – my beloved previous employer whose job I’d simply outgrown – quickly, and made VP at the mere age of twenty-five. Most of my peers were twice my age, old school, and for the most part, sexist. I’d had to develop a thick skin early on, just to convince people I could do my job. If there was one reason to look forward to working here, it was that the business was young, and so were its people. I looked forward to having conversations about the latest contestants to be kicked out of Love Island, just as much as discussions about data-driven analytics.

             I’d worked for start-ups ever since I’d graduated, much to my grandma’s bewilderment, and marketing had become my specialism of choice. Grandma couldn’t get her head around why I would want to be part of the rat race, working a demanding office job, fighting my way through the crowds of mostly men, and privileged ones at that, when I could be nursing, or teaching, or doing something else she deemed more fitting for a young woman. But I was headstrong. Grandma said I got that from my mum. I wouldn’t know. I can’t remember ever knowing my mum. A car accident took her away from me when I wasn’t even six months old. My dad had never been on the scene. So, Grandma had raised me, and had been, for all intents and purposes, my rock. She would never understand why I loved my job, but she understood that I had to do it. 

             This was my calling. Or, if I was totally honest with myself, it was the next best thing. I was good at marketing. I knew how to dig up the benefits of a business, package up a brand and present it in the best possible light. I could dissect metrics and determine where budget should be invested to get the biggest bang for our buck, and I could do it with my eyes closed. My campaigns had won awards and placed me in the Top 30 under 30 lists in Forbes, Media Week and The Drum. I didn’t broadcast it; I didn’t want to sound pretentious. I was a typical Brit. I’d worked my ass off to get there though, and with the volunteer work I’d taken on ever since I left school, I hadn’t had time for much of a life. Best friends were scarce; the few I had retained from school and Uni had shacked up with guys, and moved to the suburbs (in their mid-twenties! I mean, what?) Boyfriends were even more scarce, Apart from Johnny, who’d taken my virginity after some bonfire night party when I was eighteen, and Rich, who I thought I loved until he cheated on me with another girl in my year at Uni, I hadn’t given boys much thought. They weren’t worth the hassle. I figured I’d give the whole relationship thing my attention once I’d made something of myself. Some might say I’d already done that, but for some reason, I couldn’t face the effort of trying to find another half. I was pretty whole all on my own.

             Marketing had come easily to me. What didn’t come so easily – and why I probably wasn’t ready to rest on my laurels – were opportunities to really make a difference. I wanted more. I wanted a job that allowed me to do some good in the world. Ultimately, I wanted to change a business from the inside-out – change its policies towards the environment or labour and fair trading. Skilld didn’t need that; it was already doing good, by democratising the job market. Instead of advocating privileges like attending the right university, or having the opportunity to travel, Skilld was the first job listing site that allowed candidates to only list their skills – things the candidates could have learned through courses, or simply by living life and giving things a go. It was original and innovative. And needed. The world would have to wait. I could learn things at Skilld; I could learn things from Zac. As an entrepreneur, he was inspiring. What he’d created was ground-breaking, and had already changed lives for job seekers. There was no wonder LinkedIn had snapped it up two years ago.

             But Skilld had been on my radar since before then, since it had first hit the headlines. I’d watched its progress like a hawk, from the moment Falcon invested and it hit the trades. I knew all about Zac Morecambe-Cheney and the fact he was a darling of the British press for being the best-looking, blue-blooded bachelor in London. I also knew his marketing campaign was past its sell-by-date and needed an urgent injection of adrenalin to kick it back to life again.

             I wanted to be the one to evolve Skilld’s famous testimonial-led launch campaign. The time had come to make those changes, and I was glad Zac’s team had chosen me as the one to do it. But hell, it made me nervous. I would now be under a spotlight I’d never before come close to. Everyone would be looking out for my first move, and it would be scrutinised. That thick skin I’d developed battling my way on to the board beside men twice my age? I was going to need it again. And the thought terrified me.

            Thankfully, I didn’t have time to convince myself I was in way over my head, or to make a hasty move for the exit, as Jay arrived within minutes. Was it me, or did he look nervous? He leaned over to the receptionist and whispered a few words. She quickly tapped something into her keyboard, and mumbled a few words into her headset.

            “Jessica! You’re here!” He smiled and shook my hand vigorously. He looked a little different to how I’d remembered. It had been four months since I’d first him at a networking event for tech marketeers, and three months since he’d sat in front of me in the interview panel. It was entirely Jay’s doing, that I was sitting here, in the reception of the company I’d desperately wanted to work, and I was indebted to him for that. I remembered him being cute. Well, cute probably wasn’t the right word; he was tall, for a start, about six foot three, and pretty stocky. He’d let his hair grow a little wild, and he’d developed a decent layer of stubble around his cheeks and jawline since I last saw him. I wasn’t in the market for a boyfriend but if I was, I wouldn’t have written him off, that’s for sure. 

            “Of course!” I almost squealed. “You know how much this means to me. I can’t wait to get stuck in. I’ve already drawn up some plans to put in front of Zac…”

            “Woah, there, eager beaver,” Jay laughed, a little too heartily. “Let’s get you settled in first. There’ll be plenty of time for actual work in due course, believe me. Now, come,” he said, putting a hand on my back and guiding me towards the open plan offices. “Let’s go and meet your team.”

            I heard the crash before we rounded the corner. The sound of a screen shattering on to a table, shards of glass tinkering on to the floor. A man’s voice, angry, hissing, from behind a closed meeting room door. When the office came into view, I watched as silence fell across the hundred or so desks that littered the open plan floor. Employees reached for their headphones: some looking dazed, as though this happened every day; others looking panicked, as though they might be the next recipient of the venomous words falling through the door frame.

            “Who the hell are you targeting the ads at? Silver surfers? They’ve fucking retired, you idiot. They DON’T. NEED. TO. WORK.”

            “That’s not who we’re target…”

            “Then who? Come on! Why have our CPCs gone through the fucking roof? Why am I not getting a return?”

            “We’ve exhausted our audiences, and with all respect, sir, we don’t have anything new to sa…”

            “Bullshit. Excuses. What the fuck am I paying you for? I’ve a mind to take the losses out of your salary. Actually, you know what? I will. You need to earn your place here, Ollie. You’ve done jack shit so far…”

            Jay’s hand pressed harder against my back, steering me away from the meeting room, to the other side of the floor. A pale, familiar-looking woman walked briskly past me, flashing a small, slightly panicked smile in Jay’s direction.

            “That’s Eliza Parker-Lambert, your Head of PR,” Jay said. I remembered her now. She’d been the Comms Director at Falcon, the VC that originally invested in Skilld. “We can meet her properly a bit later.”

            I nodded, but I felt numb.

            That voice was unmistakeable. That voice belonged to Zac Morecambe-Cheney. The same Zac Morecambe-Cheney who’d filled every headline only two years ago, as the brains behind Britain’s most successful start-up, having sold it to LinkedIn for $400 million. The same Zac Morecambe-Cheney who, prior to launching Skilld, was famed for being the son of Baron Thomas Morecambe-Cheney, the goldmining billionaire, and sole heir to his father’s fortune. Not that he’d been interested in any of it. Rumour had it, Zac and his father hadn’t spoken for a decade, and they hated each other. His father because Zac hadn’t wanted to follow in his footsteps and take over the goldmining business. And Zac because his father had spent so many years away from home, he didn’t have a clue who his son really was. Which was ironic, because I would have guessed everyone in the world, or the western world at least, knew who Zac Morecambe-Cheney was. If not for his famous roots or his astounding business success, then for his charming bachelor reputation, good looks and uncanny likeness to a young Tom Cruise. He had the same thick, black, close-cut hair, strong nose and dimpled cheeks, and the exact same Maverick-esque twinkle in his eye. I’d been dying to meet him in person, and had sorely hoped I wouldn’t be starstruck or bashful. That hope had evaporated. Now, I just hoped I could survive.

             Jay beckoned to three people sitting at a bank of desks and led me, and them, into a small room.

            “Sit, sit! Coffee? Tea, anyone?” Jay motioned towards a drinks trolley laden with jugs, cups, teabags and biscuits.

            “Hell, yes,” a pink-haired girl said, lurching toward the trolley. “I need all the caffeine I can get today.”

            “Late night, Ches?” A guy with a beard piped up, with a smirk.

            “Uh huh,” she replied, shovelling a Hobnob into her mouth. “But not what you think, doucheball.” Bits of biscuit flew in my direction. “I got up to level eight on Fast Trax. It took me eight hours straight, but I did it.”

            “What?” A third voice tinkled. A slender girl with waist-length black hair looked up from her laptop. “That’s unheard of, dude. You need to hit me up with your hacks. I’m still at level three.”

            “Listen up, guys,” Jay interrupted. “This is your new VP. Jessica, meet your motley crew.”

            To my relief, three faces smiled brightly back at me, making me feel instantly welcomed.

            “Hey, I’m Cheska.” The pink-haired girl took my hand, and gave it a brief shake. “I manage the Content and Social team. There are five of us. Well, three actually.” She turned to look at Jay’s bewildered face. “Yeah, Toni and Niev just quit.”

            “Okaaay,” Jay said, fixing another huge smile to his face. “And this is Jim, the… what are you exactly?”

            “Er, ha-bloody-ha, Jay …”

            I noted, with glee, the camaraderie between the team and Jay – someone who was their senior by a long way. It gave me good vibes about the company. And I needed that, after the expletives I’d just heard on my way to this room.

            “I look after marketing tech – SEO, metrics, affiliates. I’m the one who’s forced to work closely with Jay and his architecture team,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

            “Nice to meet you,” I said. “Do you have direct reports?”

            “I do. I have a second-in-command, Iro, but otherwise I use mainly freelancers. You cannot believe the value for money we get from Fiverr.”

            “Oh, I can imagine,” I nodded. I smiled over at the dark-haired girl. “And you’re…”

            “Jezabel. Jez for short. I’m your Brand Manager, and the person who’s been standing in since Kayla left.” She turned back to her laptop and bashed away at it like it had killed her kittens. Kayla was my predecessor who’d left, according to the board members who’d interviewed me,‘to pursue other opportunities’, after only two months. That was as much as I knew.

            “I’m grateful for that,” I smiled. “Maybe you and I can meet later, and you can hand over some things?”

            “Sure,” she replied without looking up. “It would be great to offload some of this stuff, so I can focus on my actual job.”

            She was feisty, I thought. But I liked that. And after climbing my way up in tech, against the backdrop of a man’s world, it was nothing I couldn’t handle. The five of us chatted amicably, and in the space of twenty minutes, I’d discovered that Skilld was not performing anywhere near as well as everyone had predicted; the bosses at LinkedIn were watching closely and keeping tabs on Zac; and staff were packing their bags quicker than a gale could slam a door. Eliza joined us later and confirmed my fear that Skilld was a hair’s breadth away from being exposed in the press as a bad bet on LinkedIn’s part, embarrassing the social network and its owner, Microsoft. Eliza had been working overtime to keep Zac’s behaviour, and Skilld’s true performance, out of the press and as far away from analysts as possible. It did not make for happy listening, and I was beginning to wonder what the hell I’d done taking this job. 

            “But we have to keep trying,” Eliza said. “Skilld has so much potential. It’s already changed the lives of most of our clients – we have the data to back that up.”

            “She’s right,” added Jay, and I noted a faint glimmer of pride in his voice. “It’s a winning formula and its proven, but it hasn’t evolved since Linkedin bought it. Movement into new territories has been slow and the marketing campaign is still trudging out client testimonials from three years ago. It’s still a young business, yet already it feels tired.”

            I looked back at Eliza whose gaze still lingered on Jay. If there wasn’t already something between them, it wouldn’t be long, I thought. I nodded along with them, taking it all in. The fact the marketing campaign hadn’t ever changed was partly why I’d wanted the job; there was a huge opportunity to put my stamp on it and do something exciting. But hearing that the business itself was apparently stagnant, that the growth had ground to a halt, that came as a shock.

            “Zac isn’t interested in changing the campaign,” Jez said, looking sideways at me. She knew that would have been the first thing on my list. “It was created by she-who-cannot-be-mentioned, so it ain’t going anywhere I’m afraid.”

            “You mean Charlotte Matheson?”     

I knew a little bit about the ‘Matheson Scandal’ as it had become known in City circles. Charlotte Matheson had been a marketing manager at Falcon Investments, the firm that had funded the early stages of Skilld’s growth. She’d had an affair with Marcus, the CEO, who also happened to be one half of Britain’s best-loved society couple. When the press exposed the affair, Lottie was slammed for lying about her past and conning her way into Falcon. But, to her credit, she’d picked herself up, launched her own extremely successful business, and she’d hooked up with Zac along the way. But their relationship hadn’t lasted. And not long after that, Charlotte Matheson and Marcus Armstrong announced they’d married in a secret and private ceremony. 

           If Zac really hadn’t gotten over Charlotte, he must be miserable, I thought. Marcus and Charlotte were constantly in the press for one thing or another, whether they’d been guests at a society wedding covered by Hello magazine, or cracking another business milestone – Marcus with his investment projects, Charlotte with her tech start-up, MarketMe. Their stunning looks didn’t hurt the press interest either. Both looked as though they’d just stepped off a catwalk – or out of the pages of one of those brochures for really expensive holidays. He was tanned, buff and casual, as though he simply didn’t need to make an effort. She was petite, honey-blonde and elf-like. Depending on the setting she was photographed in, she was either beaming from ear-to-ear, her arms curled around Marcus’s neck, or fiercely focused, networking for her business or delivering a TED Talk. Either way, she was beautiful, driven, clearly intelligent and – in a one-eighty degree turnaround – utterly adored by the British media. If I was Zac, I would struggle to live with it.

Eliza cleared her throat and leaned towards me. “You know I was the Comms Director at Falcon before I came here?”

I nodded.

            “He was never like this. He used to be so positive, so ambitious and so forward-thinking. He was the sole reason Skilld became so successful. Deep down, despite everything, he’s an absolute genius. But on the surface, he’s changed, and it’s all because of how he feels about Lottie and Marcus. He’s turned bad, Jessica. You need to know that.”

            Jez nodded and turned fully to face me. “I’ve been here from day dot and I’ve seen four Marketing VPs come and go – all with the same dream and ambition that you probably have; to breathe new life into this prematurely stale brand. But he’s become so arrogant, he won’t hear of it. I’m on the verge of quitting myself…”

            I looked up at Jay who nodded, resigned.

            “It’s okay, Jay knows,” she assured me. “He knows everything.”

            “So…” I was almost stuck for words, but I had to say something. “What do you suggest I do?” I couldn’t believe this was day one, and I was already asking my own team for advice. I should have been the one directing them.

            Eliza, the more experienced of the four, looked thoughtful for a minute. “You should bide your time. Pretend to be on board with his plans, and build his trust. Then start to drop in a few suggestions.”

            I nodded. Eliza was the one who’d navigated the press around the various scandals at Falcon that had made the owner, Marcus, and his team infamous. She knew what she was talking about. “That sounds sensible, I guess.”

            “Just take it slowly and don’t piss him off. We can’t afford to lose yet another VP. Not only is it bad for press, it’s soul-destroying for the team.”

            “Hear, hear,” Jim agreed. 

            Cheska, Jez and Jay also looked at me with pleading eyes. I felt torn. On the one hand, I felt like this could be my moment, my mission; maybe I could be the one to turn this business around. How amazing would that be? On the other hand, after what I’d heard that morning, I felt nervous. I’d dealt with difficult people before, but never anyone who swore like it was going out of fashion, or who intimidated their staff, or were content to live with a dying business, unprepared to listen to others who could help. What was I letting myself in for?

            “I’ll do my best,” I said, and I meant it. That was all I could do.

I was stunned when every single employee on the floor got up and left at five thirty sharp. Not one person worked a minute over. I felt my heart sag a little more. This was a deeply unhappy building, occupied by a grossly demotivated team. I continued rummaging through the files and folders that the team had pointed me to, and made notes on the strategy, plans and spend as I went. The sound of the Farringdon streets outside carried me along in concentration, and it wasn’t until my stomach started growling, that I realised it was 8pm. I shut down my laptop and slid it into my bag along with my notes. Then I took another look around the empty office, and walked back towards reception. As I emerged on to the corridor, I noticed another room opposite the reception desk, with its door slightly ajar. So far, I’d only seen the open plan offices and a few meeting rooms off to the side, so I hoped this new room was a boardroom, or at least someplace we could meet agencies and other partners.

            As I reached the doorway, I heard the sound of shuffling. I assumed it was the cleaner. I pushed the door gently so as not to startle them, then felt the breath scrape my throat as I gasped. There was definitely a boardroom table, but I hardly even saw it. What I did see was Zac Morecambe-Cheney, my new boss, standing at the far end of it, with his back to me, facing the supremely polished window. It was so supremely polished it was highly reflective. There was no mistaking the act he was engaged in; I could see everything. My gaze dropped from his handsome, entranced face, his eyes softly closed in ecstasy, to the long, strawberry-blonde hair of a woman facing him, on her knees, her head bobbing back and forth. I couldn’t tear my eyes away so instead I squeezed them shut, somehow hoping that would magic away the sight of the famous and adored CEO Zac Morecambe-Cheney getting blown in his boardroom. This had to be the worst end to the worst day in the history of my life, let alone career. When I opened my eyes again, she was still sucking; the soundtrack confirmed as much. But as I wrenched my eyes upwards, back to Zac, his were open. And on me. I could swear it. With my entire being flooded with embarrassment, I backed away quickly, bumping an arm against the doorframe, and continued, robotically, on my way to the exit. 

            I pushed my way out of the building and turned a corner off the main street, keeping a firm face while dodging the tens of other people rushing home from work. Then I slid down the wall to the pavement and burst into tears. I covered my face with my hands, hoping no-one would recognise me, not that I knew anyone who worked or lived around Farringdon. As far as the first day at a new job went, this had to be up there as the most disastrous and disappointing start I’d ever known. I couldn’t stay at Skilld. I didn’t want to stay. Did I? While Zac had never attended any of my interviews, other board members had convinced me this job would be amazing. What they hadn’t mentioned was I would never be able to run a campaign of my choosing, and the image of Zac Morecambe-Cheney getting his dick sucked by a random girl, in his boardroom, would forever be etched onto the insides of my eyelids.

            I was the fifth VP in eighteen months, Jez had said it herself. I’d been fed a line – or several – just to prevent Skilld from looking bad. We couldn’t have a business that specialised in recruitment being incapable of hiring people themselves now, could we? I was being used. 

            Passers-by tried not to notice me as I sobbed out a multitude of emotions – disgust, disenchantment, despair. I didn’t know what to do, or what was going to come of my career. The trade press had already announced my appointment; Skilld’s board had made sure of that – and now I knew why. If I left now, after one measly day, my reputation would be tarnished. Why should I have to risk that? 

            But fear for my reputation wasn’t the only reason I was hesitant to quit. As much as I despised admitting it to myself, I’d felt something when I watched Zac getting head. His eyes were on me, I was convinced of it. And for a moment, we shared something, just the two of us. I felt suddenly and inexplicably tied to him. I’d always known he was devastatingly handsome, but when his famous eyes were on me, and me alone, they turned me inside out. I felt raw, exposed, stripped. And something inside me ached. I knew there and then, I couldn’t leave. I also knew if I was ever going to make it out alive I would have to keep my head down, my wall up and my elbows out. I wiped my eyes and blew my nose. I knew what I had to do; I had no choice. I stood up and gathered my things. I needed to sleep and be ready. The devil himself had hired me, and I had work to do.

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© 2020 by January James