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My plan to amuse myself--and maybe you, too.
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You Decide 2.0--Anna Maria

Chapter One: Anna Maria is Saved from Poor Decision-Making

“Kitten,” his deep voice purred over the phone, “I’ve had a change of plans.  Ralph Lauren booked Annika for the weekend and she can’t make it to St. Barts.  Casimir says we can’t entertain his father without a hostess.  He’s very old school.  I need a pretty girl, stat.”

 

Being Troy’s personal assistant had included some surprising duties, but this one might have been the oddest.  Was he asking me to pimp for him?

 

“None of those skanks from marketing, either – I need someone smart.  Do we know anyone who speaks Italian?”

Had he called me “kitten” or “doll” for so long he’d forgotten my name was Anna Maria Capelli?  I waxed the legacy of my Sicilian grandmother off my upper lip every five days, but no facial care could hide the fact that I was one generation away from the Old Country.  Troy finally made the connection.

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I'm supposed to care about money, but I don't. I'm just here to amuse myself, and maybe you. This story is free to a good home!

“Sweet thing!  You could do it!”

 

“You want… want me to come to St. Barts and – and be your hostess?”  I thought my heart was going to explode out of my chest.  Could this be it?  A luxurious beach house, a blazing sunset, a tall rum drink, a loosely-tied sarong – was it finally my turn with Troy?

 

“I don’t think we can swing the ticket from expenses, though – can you buy your own ticket and I’ll reimburse you later?”

 

I was suddenly aware of the trim, pretty woman sitting opposite me.  She was looking at me and shaking her head slowly.  I asked Troy to hold and put my hand over the phone.  “I’m sorry – who are you, again?”

 

“I’m Amy,” she said simply.  “And Anna Maria, you don’t need a ticket to St. Bart’s on your credit card.  You’re already maxed out.  Again.”

 

“What?”  I was aghast.  Who was this Chanel-clad, impeccably dressed conscience to make me loose my chance?

 

“Open his expense account.  You know where it is.  That’s right – take a look.  What do you see?”

 

“Um… just the usual.”

 

“The usual?  Is that a car payment I see there?”

 

“What?  Oh – is it?”

 

“Yes.  And what about that – isn't that the oriental rug you took delivery of last week?  For his condo?”

 

“Hey – that IS the company…”

 

“He’s got money in his expense account to get you there.  And he’s going to buy you a new sarong, too.  Now.  Let’s talk about protection from some of the nastier social diseases, and how you’re going to make that snake crawl when he tries to ditch you in the St. Maartin’s airport.  Let’s talk about the true treasure – that charming, shy, attractive Casimir.  What does it matter if he can’t speak much English if you speak Italian?”

 

“Oh, Amy – thank God you’re here!”

 

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE!

 

We’ve got a big decision to make right up front, which will determine the genre of this rom-com—so think about what you want for the next twenty or thirty chapters!

 

A. Amy is a sort of spirit guide—a supernatural element that puts the book into what’s called “speculative fiction.” I’m telling you now that if we decide to go this way, Amy is going to fall for the spirit guide leading Casimir along HIS path.

 

B. Amy is from the accounting department. She’ll become Anna Maria’s best friend and external brain; she will roll her eyes often and stop Anna Maria from making the typical poor decisions that define the “Bridget-Jones-style rom-coms”…so Anna Maria is really going to have to step up her game to get into messes!

 

C. Amy is a stranger off her meds who wanders in and out of Anna Maria’s life (and past all sorts of security) to deliver a bizarre assortment of useful and useless advice about life. This would probably push our book into the “women’s fiction” category as the romance with Casimir (or Troy) would probably take a back seat to Amy’s backstory.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE! You have until Sunday, May 15 to cast your vote, and I’ll send you the next chapter on May 20.

Chapter Two: On the Plane

The woman in the aisle seat glared when I squeezed past her to take my place in the middle.

 

“Sorry,” I said, juggling my laptop bag and overnight duffle. I wedged into my seat, wishing (once again) that I had a supermodel’s ass. “Looks like it’s going to be a cozy flight.”

 

“Hmph,” she said dismissively.

 

The gaunt man in the window seat had already mummified himself behind an eye mask and ear buds. At least I wouldn’t have to fight for the arm rest on that side.

 

Far to the front of the cabin, the steward twitched closed the curtain to First Class, shutting away any hope that I could refresh my gaze with the top of Troy’s inky-black hair. Still, it was enough to know we were on the same plane—that he’d spent the pre-flight time focusing on me (even if it was to issue a bewildering range of directions).

 

Settled and buckled at last, I passed my time profitably, texting the hotel manager about the latest “must haves” that had to be stocked in our beachside cottage. There. Another task done. Aren’t I an efficient assistant, Troy?

 

“You’ll have to turn that off,” Mrs. Angry said beside me. “They’re closing up the plane doors.”

 

“I’m on the plane’s wi-fi,” I explained. “I can keep working.”

 

“Nonsense. What do you think “airplane mode” is for?” She flagged down a flight attendant who, forced to wriggle between the last passengers attempting to force bags into already-full overhead compartments, wasn’t overjoyed to explain to her that yes, I could use my phone.

 

“Hmph,” my seat mate said again. Her fury was clearly growing.

 

Once airborne, she waited until the “fasten seatbelts”light went out before she clicked open her belt with the grim determination of whoever pushes the button on all those nuclear codes. Off she went, stalking up the aisle toward the bathroom.

 

Good. I could reclaim what everyone in the civilized world recognized as the middle seat’s armrest.

Someone settled into the seat—a smaller body, smelling faintly of a clean, floral perfume. I looked up.

 

“Amy!” Now, where had she come from? “What are you doing here?”

 

“Hello, Anna Maria. Aren’t you glad you didn’t take the earlier flight? That sixteen-hour layover in the St. Maarten’s airport would have been ghastly.”

 

“How did you know…”

 

“Oh, please.” She waved a graceful hand in the small space before the now-reclined seat of the passenger in front of her.

 

“No, really. You’re from accounting, right?” She knew so much about Troy’s expense account, after all.

 

Amy leaned forward to peer past me at the guy in the window seat. Satisfied that he’d determinedly blocked all his senses, she sat back with a smile.

 

“I’m your spirit guide.”

 

“I’m sorry—my what?”

 

“Think of me as your fairy godmother, if that makes you feel better. Not that I’m old enough, of course.” She slid her hand

down her graceful blonde bob and found everything to her liking. Amy oozed confidence.

 

“Fairy…what? I don’t understand.”

 

Amy turned in her seat and regarded me with a smile. With the drone of the plane’s engines and the padded confines of our economy seats, we were in a sudden pocket of near-invisible intimacy. We might have been two teenagers curled up on a sleepover, whispering confidences. “I know. Here’s the thing. After you die, there’s a next step before the…you know. Afterworld.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Well, I haven’t gotten there yet, have I? How would I know? But everyone who dies, before you move on, you spend a few years guiding one of the living, who could benefit from some supernatural intervention. And I got you. That’s all.”

 

“That’s all?” The rational part of my mind wondered why I would even entertain this kind of insanity; the rest of me was swamped by questions. “But—um. Why me? Why not everyone?”

 

Amy laughed, and I couldn’t help but smile back in response to her bright happiness. “Why not everyone? Well, I can see what you can’t see.” She gestured to the crowded plane, packed with humanity like cattle gloomily awaiting slaughter. “Every one of these people has a spirit guide with them. Most of them can’t see their guide, though. Too busy with other things.”

 

I blinked and tried to absorb her words, but it was rain in the desert. My mental ground was too hard to absorb anything.

“Most of them? Why can I?”

 

“Most of them are ignoring the smart ideas they’re suddenly hearing in their heads. A few of them think the advice is coming from their conscience. And you seem to be the only one here who can actually see their guide, which makes me very pleased with myself. I picked such a good receiver!”

 

“I’m a receiver?”

 

“You’re receiving my advice; you’re my receiver. I’m your guide.”

 

“Oh.” Perhaps I was hallucinating the whole thing. “Do I have to do what you say?”

 

She laughed again. “Oh, I wish! No, you’ve got free will. But if you’re smart, you’ll listen to me.” She nodded to me firmly, with a raised eyebrow that promised dark doings if I ignored her. I wasn’t so sure.

 

“So, okay,” I said. “This is sort of an Ebenezer Scrooge scenario, right? I’m guessing you’re here to show me the consequences of my sins?”

 

“Pah.” She waved the “perish the thought” hand again. “That word sin has such moral connotations, doesn’t it? Like—religious?”

 

Okay, so not an angel in the traditional sense. She went on.

 

“I don’t know from sins. When I died, there was no Saint Peter judging me. I don’t think any life is defined by sins, per se. Rather, one is defined by the choices one makes. And “choice” is a better word than “sin,” isn’t it?”

 

“You died? How? Was it from sinning—I mean making choices like I would?”

 

“Sweetheart. I fell asleep at the wheel and drove into a bridge abutment. No muss, no fuss. But it does give me perspective that you don’t have. Honey, I promise you: I know how long it takes to get out of credit card debt, so I’m definitely going to advise you to live within your means.”

 

I pouted. My means were not enough to support a determined addiction to stunning shoes, which kept coming out every season—more beautiful, more sleek, more desirable than ever.

 

Amy must have read rebellion in my face. “But that’s not the point here, Anna Maria. Before that heifer comes back from the potty, let’s talk about Troy. Now, listen to your conscience, honey. Troy is a player. He’s trash. He walks from bed to bed. No, he sprints. Why do you want to be one in a long line of suckers?” She bit back a grin. “And I don’t mean women willing to suck. I mean fools who believe they’re going to be the one to tame all that chaos.”

 

“But…” I heard the whine in my own voice but couldn’t contain it. “He’s so beautiful. Can’t I just…”

 

“You could,” she said, “if you were a different kind of person. But you’re going to fall in love with him and he’s a snake. He will bite you. It will hurt. Am I lying?”

 

I wrinkled my nose in distaste and emitted a sad little whimper. “Want,” I said pathetically.

 

“I know.” She patted my hand and I realized that I couldn’t actually feel her. It was more like a fresh, floral breeze had brushed across my knuckles. She really was a spirit guide, then. “But what you want? It has to come from you, not from some man. Self-love. Do you understand?”

 

I frowned. “Don’t tell me to learn to like my body. I’m surrounded by fashion models all day, and I just can’t love the size of my hips.”

 

Amy sighed. “We’ve got work to do. That’s not what I’m talking about at all. But if you need a little reminder about your physical appeal, make sure to put on that bikini as soon as possible once you get to the beach. Even store-bought boobs don’t look as luscious to men as yours will, and Troy’s going to ogle you like the disgusting lecher he is. But keep an eye on Casimir, because he is not a disgusting lecher. Oh,” she fluttered, “how did we get so hopelessly off track? Here comes that bitter woman. Don’t let her make you feel bad; she’s shopping in the plus sizes herself. I’ll talk to you the next time you’re alone.”

 

“Wait—you mean I can only see you when I’m alone?”

 

But she was gone, up the aisle behind me to wherever all the other spirit guides were lurking.

 

I was so lost in thought that I didn’t much notice when my seat mate returned. What did it all mean? Troy…Casimir…Amy…there were too many thoughts in my crowded brain.

 

Assuming I hadn’t imagined the entire conversation, what was my strategy for this weekend?

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE!

 

A. Anna Maria has met Casimir when she’s sat in on various meetings as Troy’s assistant; he’d seemed utterly forgettable. But then, he was always in gleaming Troy’s shadow. Anna Maria decides to heed Amy’s advice and give Casimir a second look.

 

B. Anna Maria tells herself that she understands Troy very well; she’s not risking her heart. This weekend is about getting her turn with the delicious hunk. And how much faith can you put in the words of a woman who would drive into a bridge abutment in her sleep, anyway?

 

C. Anna Maria hedges her bets. She’ll volunteer to make a nice Italian dinner in the cottage for Casimir and his father. This will fill Troy with admiration (which would be good) and please Casimir and Matteo (so, good for business, too). She’ll keep all her options open.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE! You have until Sunday, May 22 to cast your vote, and I’ll send you the next chapter on May 27.

Chapter Three: Making a Sicilian Dinner


By the time we arrived in the small St. Maarten’s airport to do the impossible dance of customs-baggage-find-a-normal-sized-bathroom, I realized that I’d hallucinated my strange conversation with a so-called "spirit guide."

Of course I had. This was the result of too many overtime hours and too few rum drinks on a Caribbean beach. All that was going to change this weekend.

And here he came. Long, luscious, already with a base tan while I was feeling pale and wrinkled…but never mind. This was my chance.

I just had to pry the blonde off his arm. He’d met her in first class of course he had; what woman wouldn’t enjoy a long flight with Troy in the next seat? The hussy had charmed my man. But she was staying in St. Maarten, and we were taking a connecting flight to St. Bart’s, so bye now, you plastic surgeon gazelle.

They exchanged their info and promised to keep in touch (yeah but not this weekend) and then she was gone in a cloud of hussy perfume. Troy turned to me. At last.

"Grab the bags, will you? I’ll meet you by the gate."

Aaaand—there he goes.

Never mind. He wouldn’t be able to overlook me on the tiny commuter plane for the twenty minute flight to the far-smaller resort island. And just in case, to hedge my bets, I spent the next two hours juggling his bags, my bags, and my phone while I had a text conversation with the hotel concierge. By the time Troy reappeared (where had he gone?) to board the terrifyingly small plane, my supplies had been ordered and my plans were in place.

"I thought I’d cook a nice meal tonight," I said casually, as if it were nothing. "Sort of southern Italy meets tropical sunset. To make our guests comfortable."

"Great idea, Kitten," he said, and then sealed our romance forevermore by finding room for my duffle in the overhead bin. "That’s using your head. You might get from personal assistant to account manager sooner than we planned!"

We sat crammed thigh to thigh on the plane, but I was already flying before we took off. A weekend with Troy andmy dream job, all rolled up into one she-makes-it-look-easy meal. Prrrr.

A smiling man met us at the airport, drove us to our cottage on the beach, and promised to meet Casimir and his father Matteo when their plane arrived in two hours. He left our bags at the door, practically tugged on a forelock like a medieval peasant, and backed down the stairs.

Troy had already begun his survey of the house. Wide french doors opened onto a broad veranda just steps away from the kind of beach and crystalline waters that mortal men only see in magazines. The kitchen was plain but adequate, and covered in my requested supplies. 

And three bedrooms lined the back wall.

"This one has the best view. Put Matteo in here. And give Casimir this one," Troy said as he peered through doors. "I’ll take this one back here, with the lovely view of the parking area." He grinned at me.

I smiled in return and steeled my courage. "And where would you like me to put my things?" I dimpled at him.

"Wait and see. Which ever one of them seems most interested, but play it by ear for now."

I froze. Toy went to examine the fridge and grabbed a cold beer. "Excuse me?" I said.

"Excuse you what?" He popped the bottle open in his manly fist and continued to look past me.

"Are you suggesting…" Heat flashed in a spontaneous blaze behind my eyes. One of us had seriously misunderstood something.

"Suggesting what?" He’d found his briefcase and was pulling folders from it.

I shook my head to clear the confusion. "Am I here to… to sleep with one of the Italians?"

He must have heard the incredulity in my voice because he actually looked up and focused on me, his super-hero blue eyes wide and innocent. "Well, not if you don’t want to, of course. But if things work out, feel free to be comfortable this weekend."

"Comfortable," I repeated stupidly.

"Yeah, you know. This is how we keep accounts happy. It’s what an account manager would understand, you know?" 

He looked back at his folders and then changed his mind. "I need shorts. I’m going to change. Don’t worry about my bag—I’ll grab it."

He was in the room that I was rapidly realizing was not going to be our room while I was still standing woodenly by the front door. When I looked up, Amy was sitting on the bright sofa.

I held up my hand. "Not a word. Don’t say it. Not a fucking word."

She shrugged. By the time Troy returned, his long shins on gorgeous display, she was gone. He grabbed his beer and his folders and moved onto the veranda.

I’d formulated a logical thought by that time. To keep my hands busy, I put away the groceries and began to chop the vegetables until I was calm enough to ask him. "If Annika had been able to come after all, would you have told her to be comfortable? She is your girlfriend, after all."

He shrugged his broad shoulders. "Annika is a model, and the House of Marinello is going to have covers on every fashion magazine in the world when this breaks. She would have been comfortable in a heartbeat."

"And you wouldn’t have cared?"

"Not if she’d helped me land the Gemstones account. Is this a problem for you?" He swiveled in his chair to fix me with a look.

I raised an eyebrow in response but refused to answer. I had a lot to think about. 

I didn’t need to see Amy to hear her. "He’s a snake," she’d said to me. "He will bite you. It will hurt."

Hallucination or not, she was right. The man was an utter asshole. He’d brought me as his corporate whore.

And now where was I going to sleep tonight? Sofa? On the beach? In the bathtub?

Should I just leave? Could I get a flight home? Would I have a job on Monday if I left now?

I made the marinade and tenderly laid the fish in their spicy, delicious bath. There was time to poach the garlic. And why not open the white wine?

One glass went down so easily that I had a second. Troy called out absently for another beer like I was the waitress, so why should I be the teetotaler here?

Chopping was good for my spirit. Peppers, zucchini, tomatoes—they all fell before my knife as my anger grew. I may have been planning on surrendering my theoretical virtue to Troy, but that didn’t mean he could pass me off to someone else. 

And I wasn’t going to stand in this warm kitchen, sea breezes drifting past, in my heavy tunic top and leggings. Damn it.

By the time the hotel’s driver returned and I heard the wheels of his car crunch on the gravel, I was in my bikini, sarong tied arrogantly low on my hips, giving a fresh pineapple the treatment. Think you’re stronger than me? Take this. And that.

Troy was on his feet and heading out the door to help with the bags. He hadn’t helped with our bags, but then we didn’t represent a potential multi-million-dollar account.

My anger drained away as I waited. I heard male voices outside and suddenly felt nervous. I retied the sarong a little higher and wished for a cover-up. I didn’t want to looklike I was there for whichever man expressed interest first.

Troy appeared in the doorway, trying to usher Matteo Marinello through before him. The older man, his face famous from decades on the world’s finest runways, was gesturing to Troy to go first, and trying to relieve Troy of one or more of the suitcases he was carrying. 

"After you. No, I insist."

Finally the older man laughed and came into the house. He was talking rapidly in Italian, his accent different enough from my grandmother’s that it took me a minute to understand him. But by the time shy Casimir brought up the rear (also carrying bags), I was able to translate.

"He says," I looked to Troy, "that he’s very pleased to be here and they had a good flight."

Matteo looked to me in delight. "Ah, a pleasure," he said in the Italian of the northern part of the country. "I am learning English as fast as I can, but it deserts me in times of stress! You can tell Mr. Donovan what I’m saying?"

"It will be my pleasure."

"Charming! Please pass on to him that my son and I are delighted to be here." I was trying to do instant translations for Troy, who (for once) hung on my every word. "I am particularly glad that you are here, my dear. I don’t like to leave my lovely Rubia, and she will be so glad to hear that this will not be a wild weekend. She’s sensitive to things. You know—the Italian shame of bunga-bunga parties."

I looked at Troy as I translated with a fierce gleam of triumph. Try to whore me out to this good man, will you? Scumbag.

"Of course not," Troy said, recovering quickly. "Never crossed my mind."

"I’m glad," Matteo said through me. "You wouldn’t believe the bad behavior we’ve had to handle with the other marketing and publicity companies we’re considering. Truly shameful."

His words were too serious for the grin I was now wearing, but I’d fallen in love with Matteo with his brilliant mane of white hair and his lively brown eyes. The designer had earned my eternal worship in mere seconds.

Troy didn’t get to where he was by being unable to read the winds. He straightened from his slightly confused crouch and stepped to me. He wrapped a long arm around my all-but-naked shoulder.

"We would never do that! Why, Anna Maria here is my fiancé, here to ensure that our weekend is gracious and appropriate. Your lovely Rubia should have joined us—I’m sure we’d love to meet your muse!"

My face froze into its grin. Now I was his fiancé? I thought I was his whore.

"Charming! Charming!" Matteo was beaming in delight. "We shall have a lovely weekend in this lovely place. Enjoy the beach, discuss the campaign, get to know one another. A delight, I’m sure. And what’s that I smell?"

All right. I could do this. At least I wasn’t expected to sleep with either of them now.

And Troy would owe me.

"It’s going to be just a simple meal, but I wanted to cook for you," I said as I led them in. "I know you’re from northern Italy, but my family is from Naples. So I thought a little grilled fish a la Siciliana, if you don’t mind." I walked them to their bedrooms as a gracious hostess would, still telling them about the dinner I’d planned. "We have garden-fresh vegetables, and delicious crusty bread for dipping into olive oil and red pepper flakes, and I thought I’d grill some fresh pineapple for desert. Plus, of course, plenty of wine!"

"My dear!" Matteo’s legendary temper was nowhere to be seen. "What a treat for us! Why, you, too, are a Gemstone! Mr. Donovan, I am impressed!"

Troy smiled humbly. "Nothing but the best for our potential clients, sir! And please—call me Troy."

I’d call him Troy. I’d call him Troy when I told him my demands. And he was going to do what I wanted, or I’d blow the whistle on him.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE!

A. Anna Maria demands cold, hard cash for continuing the myth that she is engaged to Troy—and makes him sleep in the bathtub.

B. Anna Maria tells Troy that she will be promoted to account manager as soon as they return to New York. He makes her promotion conditional on landing the Gemstones account with the House of Marinello. 

C. Anna Maria bides her time. She tells Troy that he will owe her for continuing the fantasy, and she will collect when the time is right. Troy thinks Anna Maria is a pushover and attempts to sleep with her that evening; Anna Maria knees him in the balls "accidentally" and rolls over in their double bed to go to sleep.

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE. You have until Sunday, May 29 to cast your vote, and I’ll send you the next chapter on June 3. 

Chapter Four: The Bargain

"Kitten, you were magnificent."

Troy closed the door to what was now very definitely "our" bedroom and turned to me in delight.

He found me standing in the middle of the room, fists on my hips. I hissed at him. "What the fuck was that?"

He blinked, honestly started by my reaction. "What?"

"You told them we were engaged!"

"I know. Worked like a charm, didn’t it? You’ve got the old man eating out of your hand. We’re definitely going to land the account now."

"Troy!" I stomped my foot. It made me look childish, but I couldn’t otherwise control the rage that was scorching my nerve endings. "In case you hadn’t noticed, that. Is. A Lie. You made me lie."

"Kitten," he protested, holding up his hands to soothe me. I was not soothed.

I stepped forward and got my finger in his face. "Say my name."

"Doll…"

"No. No more. You say my name or I walk right now."

His hands fell to my shoulders to stroke me back to a better temper but that wasn’t going to work. I stepped back from his touch and replaced my accusing finger with a death glare. "My name. Right now. You do know it, don’t you?"

"Anna Maria. Of course I know your name. You need to calm down. This is how business is conducted."

"By lying to your client?"

"Potential client. And don’t you want to prosper in the company? How are you going to be an account manager if you can’t keep the client happy?"

"Since your original plan was for my body to be the reason the client was happy, I’m not sure you’ve found the best argument, Troy." I filled his name with all the scorn I was feeling.

"Yeah. Sorry. That didn’t work out, huh? Okay. What do you want, then, to play this through?"

"What do I…" His question took the wind out of my sails. I’d been too furious to consider that I could work this mess to my advantage. After all, that’s what Troy himself would do—and ultimately I was gunning for Troy’s position in the company.

I made up my mind. "When we get back, you make me an account manager. No more personal assistant."

"Account assistant," he shot back. "You need to serve your time."

"Oh, I think I’m serving my time right now. Account manager. You’re lucky I’m not going for account executive."

He eyed me. This was probably the first time handsome Troy had realized I had a spine and wasn’t eager to be his personal doormat. "Account manager," he agreed. I felt a thrill of victory, but he wasn’t done. "Assuming we land this account. If we don’t get the House of Marinello, you’re an account assistant."

I weighed my chances. Matteo Marinello already liked me, and quiet Casimir had never shown any reservations. I had the rest of the weekend to ply them with food and wine…and I had some ideas about the account that might just swing the balance.

"Done," I said. 

He grinned, suddenly cocky again, and then eyed me with an entirely different energy. "If we’re going to make them believe we’re in love, we should practice kissing and touching. So it looks natural."

Snake. Amy the imaginary spirit guide had that right. I shut him down decisively.

"We’re sharing this bedroom and I’ll make them believe that you and I are in love. But if you think you’re getting anything when we’re alone, let me assure you I can bring a swift knee right to your gonads. So calm down. Or go sleep in the bath tub. You’re not touching me."

"Kitten!" He gave me the big eyes and I rolled mine back at him. 

"Forget it. You’re cut off for the weekend."

He pouted but I was iron-willed. 

And I slept like a baby.


The next morning, I flirted with Matteo and cooed over Troy. After breakfast, I suggested we snorkel in the cove before getting down to business and Matteo beamed at me.

"Ah, my dear—that’s the balance we all need! Family, sunshine, a chance to relax. And then work. You’re an asset here!"

Casimir surprised me by speaking up. "She’s a very capable aide to Troy. Always ready and prepared for meetings."

He’d noticed. At least someone did. I smiled my thanks to the younger man. Matteo was interested.

"Yes—you work for Troy and are his fiancé. That must be challenging."

Before Troy could speak, I gave Matteo a sunny smile. "It’s why I’m not yet an account manager. We don’t want there to be any implication of favoritism. I’ll earn my place on the team, I can assure you."

"Ah, I wish I had a million like you!" Matteo cried. "Good for you! No special attentions. Rise on your own merit! I made all four of my children do the same. Why, you’re just the age of my eldest daughter!"

He was wrong there. His eldest was twenty—five years younger than me. I’d thoroughly researched all three of his girls as soon as our company was asked to bid for the account.

Troy was left to grin in the background. Poor dear. I drew him forward and held his hand. "Are we ready, ciccio? Let’s go for a swim!"

Troy slowed me until we had some space between us and the Italians. "Dial it back a little, Kitten. What did you call me?"

"Ciccio? Just an affectionate name. Like honey. Or sugar. He loved it. Didn’t you see?"

Matteo turned from the hotel’s beach shack, holding up fins, mask, and snorkel to me.

"Cara, these are for you. And I know your fiancé will stay by your side, so my boy and I will swim together. We cannot be too safe, can we?"

He dimpled at me and I melted. For an older man, he looked strong in his swim trunks. (Thankfully, he hadn’t gone with the European men’s briefs for swimming; I only wish I could have said the same of Troy.) Next to him, pale Casimir was applying sunscreen and asked his father to do his back.

That led to all of us applying sunscreen. Troy’s hands on my back should have been a thrill. Just days ago the thought of him touching my naked skin would have turned me into a puddle on the floor. Now I was simply annoyed when he slid his hands under the straps of my bikini "to protect your skin." I smiled through my wince.

And then we were in the water. Cool, crystalline, heavenly. I got used to the flippers (just a tiny flex of the ankle and I jetted ahead) and the view below us. We passed first over white, rippled sand where the reflections of the water above created endless patterns…and then sea grasses (I spotted a conch making its slow way along and shouted through my snorkel in delight)…and finally to the coral reefs in just eight or ten feet of water, where fish busily darted like living rainbows amid boulders and fans and waving plants.

I was enchanted. Mesmerized. This was fairyland. I lost track of everything else in favor of flipping slowly along, watching a marine landscape unfold before me.

And then something gently grazed my shoulder.

I lifted my head from the water, startled by the contact. Just a few feet away, Casimir’s smoke gray eyes watched me from his mask. He spat out his snorkel as I did the same.

"I’m sorry, signorina, but we’re getting quite far from the others. We should turn back now."

I looked around, astonished by how far I’d swum. "Where’s Troy?"

Casimir pointed. "He and my father spotted a sea turtle. They’re over there. It’s okay," he added quickly in his thick accent. "I stayed with you."

"Ah," I said stupidly. "Thank you. Yes, we can head back now, if you want."

He made an "after you" gesture with his hand and I cleared my snorkel and began the swim back.

But with Casimir beside and slightly behind me, my attention was distracted. Damn Troy. What kind of a loving fiancé was he if a sea turtle was more interesting to him? What would Matteo make of that?

And how could I have lost track of him so easily? I was no better than him.

Recriminations would do us no good. Forget. Forgive. Move on. 

The swim to shore was surprisingly long. I was more tired than I realized. By the time we got back to the beach, I was grateful for the hand Casimir extended when I stood to take off my flippers. "Grazie."

"Prego." He had a nice voice. But Casimir moved through life without pushing any air in front of him at all—not like Troy. Or Matteo. Casimir was waiting to be overlooked. Probably why he’d been swimming next to me all that time without me noticing.

We waited on the beach until the laughing turtle explorers made their way ashore. Sunlight glinted off Troy’s wet body, bronzing his beauty. Women up and down the beach turned to appreciate the view, as well as checking out the older man next to him. Matteo wasn’t as good looking but he looked like someone with a lot of money…aside from having one of the most famous faces in fashion.

Murmurs and the quiet clicks of camera phones followed us up the beach.

I put together a simple lunch (fruit, cheese, almonds, some grilled sausages, and more of the delicious bread) and served a chilled Frascati that we all enjoyed.

"Now," Troy said when we were all clean, relaxed, and seated in comfortable chairs on the veranda, "shall we discuss business?"

"Now," Matteo said in English, "is the perfect time to discuss business. I thank you. Cara, you will translate for me?"

I nodded and he patted my arm in fatherly fashion. "Bene. Noi iniziamo."

I knew most of what Matteo then said, and Troy should have known it, too, but he listened attentively as I turned Matteo’s liquid Italian into English.

"As you know," he said, "My muse—my lovely wife—is La Rubia. A Spanish model, so called for her beautiful blonde hair. Rubia is Spanish for blonde," I added to Troy.

"Got that," he said.

I raised my eyebrows. Sure you did. "La Rubia gave me three beautiful daughters, and as a play on her name, we named our daughters after gemstones as well."

"Hang on," Troy said. "Where do the gemstones come into it?"

Stupid man. This was covered in any number of interviews. 

"Rubia is Italian for ruby," I explained. Matteo waited patiently and Casimir—with more English—nodded at my explanation. 

"Right." Troy attempted to cover his blunder with hearty brio. Matteo didn’t seem to notice. He went on.

"All three of my daughters are brilliantly talented designers, and will be launching their own collections next fall under the House of Marinello label. You must be so proud," I added to Matteo in Italian.

He beamed. "You must see their work!"

He’d answered me in Italian and Troy nudged me to get me back into English.

"Sorry. He says the oldest is Dia, which is short for Diamante. Her work is elegant. Almost severe. Her fall collection will be in black, white, and scarlet, in leather, neoprene, and latex. 

"Next is Fira. Oh, he says that’s short for Zaffira. Sapphire." Troy nodded and waved his hand to keep me going. "She’s very different—all jewel tones. Vortice—is that whirlpool? Swirl?" Casimir nodded at the second word. "I see. Her work is swirly and flowing. A mix of patterns, colors, fabrics in a mad kaleidoscope. Either he said ‘mad’ or ‘insane,’ could go either way."

"Mad," Casimir added. I shot him a grin in thanks for help in the translation. "Fira is not actually insane, although perhaps we wonder now and again."

Troy and I laughed and Casimir explained to Matteo, who laughed too and went on. 

"And the youngest, just seventeen, is Ametista, who is called Tisa. She’s the avant garde designer. Her intention is to shock and startle. She features massive collars and hoods, sweeping capes, strategic cut-outs."

"Sometimes," Casimir added, "Tisa’s clothes look like they could accidentally injure an onlooker."

"She’ll be very popular," I said, and Matteo had enough English to smile and nod. 

"D’accordo," he said. "All three. Very popular." He switched to Italian. "And what would your company do to take on the marketing for this account?"

This was Troy’s cue, and he opened his mouth to speak. But Matteo cut him off.

"First I want to know—what would you call these collections? I think we call them The Gemstones Collection."

Before Troy could make a mistake, I volunteered a thought to the group.

"Hang on," I said. "Let’s back up. Because in Italian, ‘gemstones’ is ‘pietre preziose’—which at least sounds like ‘precious,’ right?" I paused to say the same thing to Matteo in Italian. "But in English, the word ‘gemstones’ is a hard word. Not hard like tough—I mean hard like this table." I knocked on the low coffee table at our knees. "You see?"

Matteo nodded and Troy watched me, his eyebrows drawn down in confusion. 

"So, as your English representative in the largest fashion market in the world, we’d like you to consider a different word." 

This was bold of me. I was speaking as an account manager, not as a personal assistant to the account executive. But since I was simultaneously pitching as I was translating, there wasn’t much Troy could do about it.

"What other word?" Troy asked stupidly. He was supposed to be backing me up. Still, I was pretty much blindsiding him with this.

"Gioielli," I said. "Jewels. The word is softer. More attractive. All women want jewels, like they want fashion."

Troy was nodding. He wore an unconscious smile. "Right. Good. That’s good."

I looked at Matteo for his opinion. He regarded me mutely for far too long a time. At last he spoke.

"We will go with…"
 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE.


Does this seem like a small vote to you? It’s not; I’m really interested in your opinion on this. What does the House of Marinello call the designs of the primary designer’s three talented daughters?

A. The Gemstones Collection
B. The Precious Jewels Collection
C. The Rare Treasures Collection

Or suggest something else. You have until Sunday, June 5 to cast your vote, and I’ll send you the next chapter on June 10.

 


 

Chapter Five: The Nod

No one could doubt that Matteo Marinello was a shrewd businessman as well as a brilliant designer. He’d taken his father’s tailoring store in a small town more than two hours south of Milan (arguably the fashion capital of the world) and turned his brand into a juggernaut global empire.

And he was sitting on a bouncy chair with his knees showing under his shorts, tropical afternoon sunlight making a halo of his famous mane of white hair, staring at me.

"I think we’ll go with…"

His voice trailed off as he thought. Troy and I both leaned forward. Matteo made his decision.

"I think we’ll go with the Precious Jewels Collection. For now." Troy’s barn-door grin faded with the last words. For now? What did that mean?

Matteo looked at his son and they had a silent conversation consisting of nods and eyebrows. Whatever it was, they were in agreement. Matteo sat back and Casimir leaned forward.

"There are three marketing firms in the United States who have the capacity to handle the Gemstones account. Mi scusi—the Precious Jewels?" Matteo nodded. "Precious Jewels. We invite Bradford Worldwide to a final selection meeting, at my father’s atelier in Italy later this month."

We’d made it to the next stage! I resisted the craving to high-five Troy. My boss had his poker face on, but he allowed a small smile and a gracious nod to Casimir and then to Matteo.

I wasn’t as practiced, and flung a hand out to Matteo, who took my hand and kissed it with a grin. Old charmer. "A causa tua," he said, "e il tuo fidanzato."

"What was that?" Troy murmured to me. 

I was blushing. "He said because of you and your fiancé."

I’d translated directly, trusting that Troy would understand that Matteo had complimented me first—but Troy believed he’d made the difference. He leaned over to extend a hand to Matteo, who dropped my hand to shake Troy’s. Casimir went on.

"You will have the opportunity to review the collections and meet your competition. More importantly, you can meet my sisters. And they can meet you." The last part of his statement was said darkly, and I understood that we’d passed the audition for the two men of the House of Marinello—but the tougher pitch was coming up.

"Incantata," I replied. "Troy and I will be delighted with the opportunity."

"Indeed, we will!" Troy was hearty. He gathered up his portfolios and then somehow the meeting was over.

"Well," I said, "I have a little prep work to do on dinner, so will you excuse me?"

"Kitten, will you bring us some beers?" Troy kicked his chair back, raising the footrest, and crossed his hands behind his head.

"My pleasure," I said. Turn me into the waitress, will you? I just landed you entry to the next stage. You snake. "Anything for you, sweetness." I dropped a kiss on his head as I went past. His hand came up in surprise—probably to grope me—but I was already gone.

I was cleaning the fish to set it into the marinade when quiet Casimir appeared at the kitchen island.

"I think perhaps it is not good for three men to sit in lazy while one woman is in the kitchen," he said. "This is not good… the word? Ottica?"

I laughed. "Optics. Not good optics. Well, thank you—but I love to cook. This makes me happy. And we work so hard at Bradford Worldwide that I don’t often get the time to do this right. So please don’t concern yourself with the optics!"

"I can help," he said. "I can…cut very small."

"Chop." I supplied the word he was missing. "Actually, can you mince this garlic for me?"

"Una piacere." Like the man, his work was precise and very tidy. We worked together companionably. He had no interest in telling me how to do my job, which was pleasing. The majority of the men I knew (mostly from the high-pressure marketing agency) couldn’t resist throwing in the occasional word of "advice" every now and again. 

"There you are!" Troy came in from the porch. "Your father’s on the phone with your plant manager and he wants you. Doing a little women’s work, are you?"

Troy slapped Casimir on the shoulder. Casimir and I both winced; him from the force of the slap and me from the disgusting "women’s work" comment.

"Will you excuse?" Casimir said to me. 

Once he’d left, Troy stepped forward to crowd me. He looked down and I read his mood. The boss was annoyed.

"What the hell was that? With the jewels and the gemstones?"

I put my hand on his chest to block him from coming any closer. "You’re lucky I said something," I hissed. "That’s what got you the invitation to Milan, Troy."

He shook his head and sighed. "You blindsided me. Don’t do it again. You have an idea, you come to me first. We present a united front. Right? We’re a team?" His hands came up to cup my shoulders.

I’ve seen this movie before, I thought to myself. Yeah, right.

"Ah," came a voice from the doorway. "This I like to see." 

Matteo. And he thought he’d discovered us in an intimate moment. Troy turned in surprise and deftly slid his fingers around my shoulders. "Oh—excuse us!"

"No, no." The older man came forward and spoke in Italian for me to translate. "I like to see this relationship. You are workers together and also as close as lovers. You think as one. No other marketing firm has shown me such trust and strength."

Troy nudged me with his hip and I slid my arm around his waist. "Most people in our company," I said, "would be suspicious of us. They’d worry what would happen if we broke up, you know?"

"Di certo," Matteo said. "I would worry in my own company. But you’re engaged, no? You are to be married? That makes all the difference. You are telling me you can commit to a lifelong relationship. That speaks very well of you, and of Bradford Worldwide. Yes, this is lovely to see. I applaud you!"

He did. He stood in the kitchen with crystalline Caribbean waters at his back and clapped together the hands that had created the seminal 2012 Principessa Collection—the red carpet dress for Beyonce when she won her Oscar—the ground-breaking costumes for Brad Pitt’s sci-fi blockbuster. And he was applauding us.

I clenched my teeth through my smile, turned to Troy, and tugged his head down.

He caught on quickly and leaned down to kiss me.

It was like kissing the back of my own hand—meaningless. Skin against skin with no heat.

But it was enough to satisfy Matteo, who stepped forward to slap Troy on the shoulder. All this slapping. What is it with men?

"Congratulazioni!" He said. "The happy couple! You will love my atelier. Come—let me explain."

He drew Troy back to the porch, beaming with satisfaction, and I was at last alone in my kitchen to contemplate a package of pre-made puff pastry dough.

But I had one more visitor to get through.

"That guy is really cute."

I turned. "Amy!"

I was hallucinating again. Here was my so-called spirit guide, siting on the island in a neat Chanel suit. She plucked up one of my olives and ate it. 

"How can you eat if you’re a spirit guide?" I challenged.

She shrugged. "I didn’t really eat it. They’re all still there. But if I do this—" and she popped another green orb into her mouth—"I can taste the salty goodness just the same. Being a spirit guide is awesome. But that’s not the point. I want to talk to you about that cute guy."

My hallucination had switched camps? "Oh, you like Troy now?"

"Psht," she said shortly. "I was right about him, wasn’t I? Snake, right?"

"Diamondback rattler," I agreed. "You totally called it." I was agreeing with a hallucination while the quiet murmur of voices from the porch masked what was surely me talking to myself. "So which of the cute guys are you talking about? Matteo, or Casimir? Because Matteo is legendary for his fidelity to La Rubia."

"See, this is what I love. You think there are only three guys out there."

"Well… yeah." I looked through the sliding glass doors to the three chairs with strong shoulders and nicely-managed haircuts. 

"Um-hm." Amy nodded. "It’s interesting. You can see me, but you can’t see their spirit guides, huh?"

My hallucination was getting complicated. "They each have a spirit guide out there?"

"I thought I told you. Everyone has a spirit guide. Most people can’t hear them, and very few people can actually see them. You’re very clever, Anna Maria." 

She beamed at me in approval and I felt a flush of pleasure. Wait—if she was an hallucination, then was I approving of myself? What did that mean? I quirked my eyebrow, lost in the question of when confidence turns into Narcissism. 

"Don’t worry about it," Amy advised. "You’ll give yourself a headache. The point is, Casimir’s spirit guide is muy caliente." 

Spanish. I couldn’t handle Spanish and Italian and English in my head. Not while having hallucinations. "Okay," I said in desperation.

"I’m going to go meet him."

"You can do that? Talk to him? Meet another spirit guide?"

"Honey. Like an olive—I don’t have to interact with the living world to taste the salty goodness. Yum." She peered onto the porch with a waggle of her well-groomed eyebrows. 

"Go for it." Maybe I could persuade my hallucination to wander off while I lost myself in the creativity of cooking. Please?

"I’ll go. But first—three things I need to tell you."

I sighed. "Okay. What do you have?"

"Well." She settled herself fussily. "First of all, the name Precious Jewels is just too… you know. Precious. You need something more high-fashion."

"Wait—what? Matteo loved the name."

"That’s because he doesn’t speak English. Do you think Anna Wintour or Nina Garcia is going to lift a single approving eyebrow over something precious? Snap out of it. Think couture, girl—that means haughty. Exclusive. Desirable."

"Uch." My sigh came out as a moan. "What, then? Have I blown this already?"

"No, this is good. Matteo is going to tell the other two competitors that he wants to call his daughters’ work the Precious Jewels Collection and they’ll build their proposed campaigns around that name. Meanwhile, you and Troy will give him the name that will fit perfectly onto runways around the globe, thereby crushing your competition and landing you the account manager job."

"And that name is…?" I asked hopefully. 

"The only possible choice," she said simply. "Three Jewels. Dump the "Collection." Just "Three Jewels." Haughty. Exclusive. Desirable."

"Amy!" I whisper-shouted. "You’re a genius!"

"I know. I’m very good at my job." She cast her eyes down in arrogant modesty. "Wait, though. I need to tell you two more things before I go find out that hottie’s name. First, Troy will take credit for anything you come up with. You know that, right? His blather about you being a team is bullshit. Tell me you know that."

"I’ve seen Working Girl," I said. "I’m not that naïve. And now I know he’s a snake. I’m prepared.."

"Good. Take defensive measures. Document everything."

"Confirmed. What’s the third thing?"

"That Matteo. Fatherly, kind, loyal to his wife. He’s hiding something. Something big. I haven’t figured out what it is yet, but be on alert."

"Matteo?" I was crushed. He was such a sweetheart.

"Didn’t you just get through saying you weren’t that naïve? Wake up. Look around you. Did he really get to the absolute pinnacle of the fashion world by being kind?"

She looked at me and I looked back, my forehead creased in concern. 

"Yes," she said. "Now you see. Good. Stay on your toes. That’s all. I’m going to go drift into a spirit guide now. Oh! Excuse me! How do you do?" She fluttered and dimpled and then she was gone.

I looked down at the ingredients for a great meal but couldn’t summon the mental calm that would turn it into dinner. What now, I wondered?
 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:


A. When she gets back to New York, Anna Maria manages to bump into Bradford Worldwide’s president, Nicholson Bradford, and lays the groundwork for documenting her efforts in the Marinello account.

B. When she gets back to New York, Anna Maria makes an appointment with Monique Selensky, head of Human Resources at Bradford Worldwide, to clarify her fake engagement to her boss…and to lay the groundwork for documenting her efforts in the Marinello account.

C. When she gets back to New York, Anna Maria makes an appointment with her GP, Dr. Owen McDonald, to see if he thinks she should get mental health counseling based on (admittedly very good) advice from a hallucination.

Or suggest something else. You have until Sunday, June 12 to cast your vote, and I’ll send you the next chapter on June 17. 

Chapter Six: CYA

Troy stuck with me at LaGuardia until his first-class luggage rolled off the conveyor belt about half an hour before my steerage luggage finally rolled into view. He grabbed his bag, added a few more things to my growing To Do list, and told me he’d see me "bright and early" the next day at the office. Then he was gone.

I looked around nervously for Amy the hallucinatory spirit guide, but she was nowhere to be seen. Not in the Uber I grabbed to get to my apartment. (I’d add the cost to the expense account.) Not in the elevator, which I shared with Mr. Terbly from the fourteenth floor. So I had begun to relax into the idea that my hallucinations were over.

Silly me.

Amy was sitting primly in the hand-me-down armchair from the last time my mother redecorated.

"Your roommate left a note. She’s drinking at Cabot’s Bar and has invited you to go. Do not go."

"I’m sorry?" I dropped my bags next to my bureau. Zither and I couldn’t afford more than a cramped little loft. She slept upstairs and I had the fold-out sofa next to Amy’s seat.

"Don’t go. You’re going to need a clear head tomorrow."

I kicked off my shoes and collapsed on the sofa. "Why? What’s happening tomorrow?"

Amy looked down her nose, too ladylike to sneer openly. "Troy didn’t even give you the morning off," she said. "He’s a snake."

"Well." I wasn’t sure why I was defending Troy, since my hallucination had certainly been right about him. "I did just spend a weekend at company expense on one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean."

Amy regarded me, her eyes narrowed in concentration. "Yes—I see it clearly now."

"What?"

"How little we value ourselves. Women in particular, but really, anyone in a subordinate position. You’re all too eager to believe that you’ve been vacationing. When in fact you’ve been negotiating minefields. Handling Troy. Impressing Matteo. Charming Casimir. You are the reason your marketing agency now has an invitation to the second round with the House of Marinello. You need a break, but that snake is going to expect his morning latte right on time, isn’t he?"

Huh. Maybe she had a point.

I tried to put a good face on it. "Well, he’ll need his latte because he’ll be on time, too."

She nodded and shook her head simultaneously. "That coffee will be cold before he strolls in. You’ll be on time—he won’t. Never mind. That will give you time for your next move."

"My next…" I was tired. A full day of negotiating airports, customs, drink carts, grumpy people took it out of me.

"Of course. You need to decide who you’re going to get behind you on this."

Maybe I needed a latte. The caffeine might help me make sense of my hallucination. "Explain."

"Of course." She tugged the hem of her skirt fractionally closer to her knees and sat up straight to make her recitation. "You need to do what—I’m sorry to say—is called "cover your ass." Distressing language, but the message is absolutely crystal clear."

I blew my lips out in a raspberry at the force of my sigh. "Explain," I said again with more force.

"Anna Maria." Amy was quite stern. "You cannot expect to be a part of Troy’s plan—a  fake engagement created specifically to dupe a potential client—without making sure you’re protected from later claims of unprofessional behavior. The first thing that goes wrong, Troy fires you as the scapegoat. You must protect yourself."

My brow was furled. She’d pointed out an unexploded bomb in my path with the contempt it deserved. Was I an idiot?

"What do I do?" I asked.

She shrugged. "The only question you have to ask yourself is—should you go to Troy’s boss? Or to the Human Resources director?"

I grunted. "Do I have to?" 

Amy looked at me. "Yes. Tomorrow morning. First thing, before Troy is even in the office."

"Oh, God."

"Tell them the whole thing. Ask them what to do."

In the mixed martial arts cage match going in in my skull, Inevitable Despair took out Ignore It Until It Goes Away.

"Which one do I contact? Boss or HR?" 

"Tell me about them."

"Troy works directly for the managing partner and founder—Nicholson Bradford. And the HR director is Monique Selensky."

"Start with the woman," Amy suggested briskly. "If she’s under Troy’s spell, move on to the man. Now wash your face, brush your teeth, drink a large glass of water. Go to bed. Do not go drinking."

Demoralized, I actually did as she told me. Zither stumbled in at about 1:45. I woke long enough to confirm that I wasn’t dead and would tell her all about it tomorrow, and then I went back to sleep.

Perhaps because of that rest, I actually made it to work without the usual last-minute desperate rush to arrive on time. 

And in a moment of breathtaking courage, I didn’t get Troy’s latte.

Hah!

My email to the HR director got a gratifying response. Ms. Selensky summoned me to her office within fifteen minutes.

She was a stern, humorless woman, but she listened without judgment as I told her the situation. The story was awkward to explain. Maybe I shouldn’t even have bothered her with it?

My hallucinatory spirit guide would want to know why I’d given up, so I finished the tale. "So now," I said lamely, "I’m just wondering what to do about this fake engagement thing. I mean, what my employment implications are, you know?"

Ms. Selensky regarded me, drumming sharp fingernails on her desk. She pursed her lips as if weighing a decision and then sat forward.

"When I began in Human Resources," she said, "one used to be able to toss an actual manila folder onto one’s desk. Of course, you never would have been invited to read that folder—there are issues of privacy which cannot be violated. That is my duty."

"Hm," I said neutrally.

"But back then, I could pull out a thick file. A very thick file." She held her hand out, fingers arched in a large C shape. "And you would understand that your concerns fit, perhaps, a pattern. Not an exact pattern, of course. But a pattern."

She looked at me with alarming focus. She was telling me that Troy had an HR record.  Interesting. I nodded.

She nodded back.

"Very often," she said, "I find that employees—often young women—talk themselves into believing that they’re imagining things or that their concerns do not merit attention. We’re rather trained in that behavior, aren’t we? As women, I mean." 

She was like Amy, telling me I didn’t properly value my own work. "Oh," I said.

"Oh, indeed. And yet, those concerns do merit attention. They should be considered. You ought to be taken seriously. I commend you for coming to me with this. It is a circumstance that is very peculiar and merits corporate attention."

Her words were encouraging, but her tone—her energy—told a very different story.

"One might wonder," Ms. Selensky said, "why a person with an employment folder like this," and she held her hand in the C again to indicate a very fat file, "would still be employed, and without censure or check. Wouldn’t you?"

Here it came. "I would. I would wonder that."

Her nods were large, like a bobble-head doll. "Yes. You would be right to do that. And now I will follow the protocol established here at Bradford Worldwide and ensure that the founding partner is made aware of the situation."

She sighed, and looked to her computer. Then she looked back at me.

"Anna Maria, I suspect you’ll be summoned into another meeting, and the upshot of that meeting will keep your situation just as precarious and unclear. But I want you to know that I will document everything. Perhaps it will help. In the long run."

"So…." I said, "You’re supporting me. But you don’t know how much good that support will do?"

The faintest hint of a smile passed across her stony face. "I’ve heard that you’re a very intelligent girl. I will do what I can to help you through this—and you must feel free to come to me. At the very least, I ask that you keep me informed through emails that I can save as well as in-person meetings whenever you want to talk."

"Thank you."

"And now if you’ll excuse me, I must put some wheels into motion. You’ll be contacted."

I was dismissed. 

But now I had a spirit guide and an HR director in my corner. That had to be worth something.

Probably.

Troy breezed into the office a bit before noon. "Kitten, order me up some lunch, will you? I haven’t eaten yet—I’m starving. Slept like a baby, though, and had a great work out! We’ve got a lot to do today, huh?"

He’d barely sat his perfectly-toned ass in his seat before he was back in the outer office again. "Come on," he said eagerly. "You and I are going to the seventy-third floor!"

Executive offices. "Now?"

"I just read the email. We’re invited for lunch. Grab your tablet; let’s hustle. Don’t want to be late!"

"What about?" I asked nervously.

"Nicholson. Wants to know about the weekend, of course. And do I have a lot to tell him. He’s going to be very pleased. Very pleased, indeed. Precious Treasures. Excellent."

"Precious Jewels," I said, but Troy wasn’t listening—and I was going to get the creative team to change it to Three Jewels anyway.

The elevator opened on Bradford Worldwide’s luxurious lobby. MacKenzie, the fashion model receptionist who had never even seen me when we passed in the halls, beamed at Troy.

"Go right in, lover—he’s waiting for you." She leaned forward to confide and Troy dropped to her level.

"Monique, too. HR in the house. Promotion time for you?"

Troy offered her a deep, throaty chuckle. "Give me a few months and then find another office for me up here, doll face. I’ve got big plans."

She cooed, and waved him ahead. I followed, invisible as always.

We bypassed the large conference room (the only space I’d been invited to on this floor, for the All Staff meetings) and were waved into the inner sanctum by a young man with such haughty attitude that he had to be Nicholson Bradford’s personal assistant.

Lunch for four was set up at a table in the middle of a vast lake of carpet. Mr. Bradford stood from behind an aircraft carrier of a desk as we came in, a handsome older man who radiated power. He was, I thought, what Troy would be in thirty years or so. 

Monique Selensky stood, too, and regarded us neutrally.

"Troy!" Mr. Bradford cried as he walked forward, hand outstretched to meet us. "Troy, my boy—I’ve been hearing all about your brilliant plan! You remind me of me at your age!" He shook Troy’s hand warmly and then terrified me by turning to me.

"And this is the little woman, huh? The old ball and chain!" He was jovial—delighted. He shook my hand and grinned at me. "Good for you, Miss Capella!"

"Capelli," I corrected, but quietly and he didn’t notice.

"What a great team you’re making, the two of you! An engagement to please the client! This is going to get our foot in the door! Tell me all about it! Come sit by me."

He pushed Troy ahead of him to the table, and Ms. Selensky appeared at my side.

"Well, at least you’re covered. Everyone who needs to know is aware this is a false engagement. It’s the best you can hope for." Her words were murmured, but it didn’t matter. Troy and Mr. Bradford weren’t listening to us.

She caught my eye and looked from Troy to Nicholson Bradford, her hand shaping a large C in the air. This is why Troy was never reprimanded for poor behavior. 

Got it.

This was going to be an interesting lunch.
 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:


A. Anna Maria plays a close game by largely listening to Nicholson and Troy. She keeps her creative ideas to herself.

B. Anna Maria grabs Nicholson’s attention by telling him the plan to allow the other competitors to mock up strategies for a "Precious Jewels" campaign while the Bradford Worldwide team instead upgrades to the "Three Jewels" campaign.

C. Anna Maria points out to Troy and Nicholson that deceiving a very wealthy potential client is a poor way to begin a business relationship. She advocates for telling Matteo the truth and then hitting him with a revolutionary "Three Jewels" campaign to prove the worth and integrity of Bradford Worldwide.

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE. You have until Sunday, June 19 to cast your vote, and I’ll send you the next chapter on June 24.

Recap: Anna Maria, personal assistant to Troy, has been startled several times of late. First, she apparently has a (possibly imaginary) spirit guide named Amy who seems bent on steering Anna Maria away from the “too stupid to live” tropes of young working women in the big city. And second, her handsome boss Troy has dreamed up a fake engagement to Anna Maria in order to please his potential client, famed designer Matteo Marinello. Amy has advised Anna Maria to cover her ass—make sure Human Resources understands that this engagement is fake. As a result of this disclosure, Anna Maria is having lunch with Troy, founding partner Nicholson Bradford, and the head of Human Resources.

Chapter Seven: Lunch with the Boss

The luncheon was set up on a square table in the middle of Nicholson’s enormous office, so technically there wasn’t a head or a foot of the table…

…and yet it was clear that I was the low man on this totem pole. Nicholson had placed Troy on his right hand and his head of Human Resources to his left. If I could have been banished to a kids’ table, that’s where I would have been sitting.

I knew my place. I sat, determined to be silent and let the Grown-Ups talk.

But while I sat there, quietly eating my beet salad and wishing I’d worn a dark red blouse (beet stains; never not a humiliating experience), I remembered Amy, the hypothetical spirit guide, telling me that everyone had a spirit guide but most people couldn’t hear them. And very, very few could see them.

If I bought into the concept of a spirit guide (and so far her advice had been pretty good, so why not?), then Amy was right here with me. She was probably speaking to me. I could only hear or see her when no one else was around, but that didn’t mean she was gone the other times.
So what was she saying to me now?

Troy was regaling Nicholson with how adroitly he’d wined and dined Matteo. I pushed aside the resentment (I was the one who’d managed all the wining and the dining) and bravely leaned forward. Both men automatically looked to me and I spoke up.

“I got the feeling that Matteo really values integrity and honor,” I said. “He really liked that Troy wasn’t attempting to ply him with women.”

“Played that right!” Nicholson banged Troy companionably on the shoulder.

Never mind that Troy had brought me as Matteo’s plaything; ignore that. “So I was thinking—”

“Don’t strain yourself, honey!” Nicholson banged on Troy again when Troy offered this witticism. “Sorry, kitten. What were you saying?”

Amy would expect no less of me. “I was thinking that we ought to confess to Matteo that our engagement was fake, and then we wow him with a brilliant campaign. I had this great idea…”

Nicholson interrupted. He put down his fork and put one hand on Troy’s forearm, as if to forestall him. “Little girl, welcome to the business world. We’re sharks out here. Your idea of honor identifies you as prey. We’re not blowing this opportunity. Your fake engagement is real as far as the House of Marinello is concerned. If you need to get married to make the point, then that’s the way we play it. Divorce lawyers are on me.”

Troy was grinning and Monique Selensky, from Human Resources, was studying an orange segment with focused intensity.

I must have misheard my imaginary spirit guide. “Okay,” I said, sitting back.

“Good.” Troy turned back to Nicholson. “We already have a great campaign anyway—Precious Treasures. The client himself chose the name.”

“It’s actually Precious Jewels,” I said, “and I think we can do better than that. We made it past Matteo’s judgment. Now we need to design a campaign that will wow the next panel of judges—Matteo’s three daughters.”

Nicholson pointed at me as if I’d made a good point (which I had). I was ready to unveil the “Three Jewels” concept when he turned back to Troy.

“How do we handle the daughters? The ladies like you, Troy. Think you can start dating one of them?”

“Why not all three?” Troy and Nicholson both found that worthy of deep, manly chuckles, and I had to remind them that as far as the House of Marinello was concerned, Troy and I were happily engaged.

“Good point. Who’s good-looking on your team? Got a designer or a writer who will impress them? Someone you can bring to Milan for the presentation?” Nicholson and Troy launched a critical assessment of the physical attractiveness of the creative department.

Monique Selensky and I exchanged a wince, but I didn’t actually lose my temper until they switched to a thorough discussion of which of the female employees were hot, in case one of the daughters was a lesbian.

Imaginary Amy whispered that I needed to show some spine. At least I hope she did.

I banged my hand down on the table, making the silverware clatter.

“Here’s what I need,” I said, interrupting the men. They looked up, astonished.

“Kitten?”

“We’ve got three weeks,” I went on, overriding Troy’s attempt to shut me down. “During those three weeks, you’ll give me a temporary promotion to account manager, with the commensurate salary increase.”

Monique had looked up. Troy and Nicholson wore identical expressions of bemusement.

“I get my own office and a creative team. If the campaign I come up with lands the account, you make the promotion permanent. In return, I will sell the fake engagement. Matteo and his staff will all believe that I’m deeply in love with Troy.” I regarded him with disgust. “And I will land the account for Bradford Worldwide.”

“What the hell, little girl.” Nicholson couldn’t have been more startled if the vast acreage of rug had turned to lava and began eating away at his chair.

“Doll,” Troy said. “What are you talking about? This isn’t your place, honey.”

Monique gave me a tiny, hopeful nod. I stiffened my resolve.

“Welcome to the business world,” I said. “We’re sharks out here. This is what it will cost you for me to continue this engagement. Take it or leave it.”

In the silence, Monique’s involuntary squeak of excitement briefly stole the attention from me. Then Nicholson leaned over to Troy and consulted with him as if they were alone.

“Can you spare her?”

“Her? Please. She gets my coffee.”

Asshole. I was going to crush his taut, arrogant ass into the pavement. Nicholson turned to me.

“We don’t have any offices left. You can keep your desk outside of Troy’s office.”

I shook my head, but Monique spoke up. “We have that office on the 48th floor, where the auditors were. We had to lease it for the year, and they’re gone now.” She turned to me. “It’s not an account manager’s suite—but it’s big enough for two desks.”

Nicholson pursed his mouth until his lips all but disappeared. “Sure—if you’re willing to drop down twenty-five stories.” He laughed contemptuously.

“Women are used to men pretending that inches are important, Nicholson.” It was the first time I dared to call him by his first name, but this was my power play and I didn’t have much to lose. “I’ll take it—and one of your graphic designers. I’ll do the copy myself.”

“No.” Nicholson leaned back and crossed his arms. “I can’t spare a designer. What—you think I have them just lying around, not working?”

He and Troy chuckled as if Nicholson had said something riotously funny.

I was willing to negotiate. “Twenty hours a week for three weeks.”

“Ten hours, and I choose the designer.”

“Ten hours and I choose the designer,” I came back. “I promise I won’t take anyone particularly ‘hot’ off your project, Troy.” He favored me with a hard glare so I added an inducement I knew he wouldn’t be able to resist. “And I’ll call you ‘master’where Matteo can hear me. Twice.”

His face lit up in a sudden grin and he thumped his fist next to Nicholson’s plate. “Take the deal, boss,” he said.

Nicholson studied me before agreeing. “Fine. But you don’t get access to Troy’s creative campaign while you’re working on yours. No stealing his ideas. I’m putting up a firewall now. Precious Treasures is off limits to you.”

I laughed, and I suppose some of my contempt leaked out in that laugh. “Agreed—and I’ll give you one boost before I begin my own account, Troy.” I leaned forward to address him directly. “The phrase Matteo liked was Precious Jewels, not Precious Treasures.”

Troy scoffed. “I was there, kitten. I heard him. You believe whatever you want to believe. In three weeks, we’ll see which one of us blows the client away.”

I felt a banging on my foot; Monique was tapping me with her shoe. She looked at me with barely contained excitement. “If you don’t mind skipping the rest of lunch, Anna Maria, perhaps you’d like me to show you the space right away?”

I couldn’t wait to get away from the Toxic Male Duo. “That would be great, Monique. Gentlemen? Thank you for lunch.”

Neither rose to their feet as gentlemen should when a woman leaves the table, but that was okay. This was a professional arrangement, not a social one—and I was going to show them that I needed no special attention.

“Good luck, Miss Capella,” Nicholson said dryly.

“That’s Ms. Capelli,” I said. “Thank you.” I smiled sweetly and turned to include Troy in my arrogance.

“Kitten,” he said in good bye.

“Master,” I returned ironically as Monique and I turned to leave.

“That one doesn’t count!” he shouted as we left.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

A. Anna Maria chooses the least “hot” graphic designer to work with her and finds that designer has a burning need to shove a strong win into Troy’s arrogant face.

B. Anna Maria finds a way to be alone for long enough to consult with Amy, who tells her she missed one important thing in her negotiations.

C. Monique Selensky proves to be not quite as stiff and humorless as Anna Maria first assumed. Monique pledges support to the campaign, including access to temp workers, an in-office coffee machine, and a friend when it comes to Nicholson’s deliberately mistaken assumptions as to what account managers are actually paid.

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE. You have until Sunday evening, June 26 to vote—although please note: I don’t actually write these until Wednesday or Thursday, so feel free to send late votes if you want! I’ll send you the next installment on July 1.


Recap: In return for upholding the fiction that she and Troy are a happily-engaged couple, Anna Maria has forced the boss of Bradford Worldwide to provide her with a temporary promotion, an office, and a part-time graphic designer to pull off a campaign to pitch to the potential clients at a prestigious Italian fashion house; she has three weeks to pull it off. Head of Human Resources Monique Selensky has offered to support Anna Maria in her effort.


Chapter Eight—Assembling the Team

Monique Selensky remained silent until we were alone in the elevator. Once she could not be overheard, she wheeled and grabbed my elbow.

“You can file a harassment charge right away. Imagine telling you you’d have to marry Troy, and that Nicholson would pay for the divorce. And right in front of me. Like I wasn’t even there” She gritted her teeth. “But I was there. Want to file?”

Her eyes, behind their serious steel glasses, were ablaze.
“Thanks,” I said. “I’m thinking I’d rather crush them in a different way.”

Her anger was replaced by cunning. “You can do it? You can land the account?”

I wasn’t sure I could beat every competitor, but I knew I could read Matteo better than Troy could. “Yeah,” I said. “I got it.”

The high-speed elevators left us with very little time for private conversation. She got off on the 71st floor. “Get your stuff and meet me in the lobby on 48. I’ll get you a key fob and show you to your new office.” The doors were sliding closed behind her when she shot out a hand. “And I’m going to bring you a graphic designer I want you to consider.”

I opened my mouth to note that I knew and liked several of the junior designers, but the doors slid shut and I dropped down one more floor.

“Hit the button for the lobby.”

“Jesus God!” I shrieked.

Amy was now standing next to me, finger and thumb pulling thoughtfully on her lower lip.

“We need more time. Hit the lobby button.”

So we rode down to the lobby and then back up to the 70th floor while she whipped off a series of thoughts for as long as we were alone.

“First—Troy’s going to keep an eye on you. Despite his dismissing you so crassly, he knows he needs you. It’s good you won’t be in his office, but you’ll also need a separate email and password. Have Monique set it up. Keep your old one so you can give him a fake train to follow. Precious Treasures!” She scoffed.

I was wide-eyed. “That is such a good idea!”

“Next, you need to make sure he doesn’t cut you out of the presentation. You never negotiated actually going to Italy. I suggest you get in touch with the House of Marinello so you can set up travel arrangements for you and Troy. That way, Troy won’t be able to use some lame excuse for leaving you behind.”

Shit. I’d missed that. “I’ll start the arrangements today.”

“Good. Finally…”

Amy vanished as the doors slid open on the lobby. Two men in suits waited for me to get off.

I waved vaguely. “Forgot something. I’m going back up.”

They shrugged and joined me. We rode in silence until they got off on the 32nd floor.

“Finally,” Amy said, and I was proud that I didn’t even jump at her return. “Advising Nicholson to be honest with Matteo was the right thing to do. He’s now had the chance to be honorable. I’m proud of you.”

“Didn’t do any good,” I muttered.

“On the contrary. It allows you to kick his posterior with a clear conscience. Don’t forget your travel mug—it’s in Troy’s bottom left drawer.”

“I knew he had it!” But she was already gone and I stepped out on 70.

I found a box and gathered up what few supplies I had in my space outside of Troy’s office, plus I stole back my stolen mug. Before I left, I changed my email password. No sense making it easy for him to track me.

And I did not change his password—for if I had, he’d know I had that information and I’d have a harder time tracking him.

I wanted a few more minutes with Amy, but the elevator wasn’t empty, and Monique Selensky had beaten me to the lobby on the 48th floor. No alone time meant no spirit guide. Still, Amy had already given me plenty of help.

“Hi, Ms. Selensky,” I said as I joined her.

“Anna Maria, you call me Monique. I want you to consider me part of your team.”

The office she let me into was very plain. The walls were boring vanilla, the windows faced onto an air shaft, and one of the fluorescent lights in the ceiling was flickering. But there were a pair of desks, each with a Bradford Worldwide-branded computer on it.

“The bathroom is just down the hall, and I’m having a coffee maker sent down to you.”

“You’re a godsend,” I said.

“I can do better than that. I have some discretion on temp workers, so let me know if you need help. Plus, I’ll ensure that your increased pay is exactly in line with other account managers so Nicholson can’t lowball you.”

She spoke with grim satisfaction. This was a woman who’d had to swallow a lot of injustice and she was ready for a fight. Excellent.

“Can you set me up with a second corporate email account? Something that Troy and Nicholson won’t know to track?”

Monique shouted a bark of laughter up to the industrial dropped ceiling. “Consider it done. Don’t abandon the old account entirely, though.”

“No, indeed. I intend to create a shadow campaign with a Precious Treasures theme.”

“Not Precious Jewels?”

I regarded her proudly. “See? You weren’t even there and you’ve got the name right. Troy just won’t listen.”

“He learned that behavior at Nicholson’s knee, I can assure you. So Troy will do Precious Treasures and you’ll do Precious Jewels, which is what the client asked for.”

“Actually, no,” I said. “I’m going one better than that.”

A knock on the open door had us both turning. A tall, wiry older woman stood in the doorway. She looked tough. As in, if you cooked a chicken that looked like that, it would be hard to chew.

“Sunshine!” Monique said, and reached out to usher the woman into the room. Sunshine? I’d never seen a less-aptly named person. “I want you to meet Anna Maria Capelli.”

Sunshine shook my hand; her grasp was strong and callused. She had absolutely beautiful dark brown eyes in a lean face. “Glad to meet you, A.M.,” she said. “You’re the one who’s going to hand Troy both his cock and his balls?”
Startled, I looked to Monique, who was smiling.

“Yes, this is the one. Anna Maria, Sunshine has reason to be very interested in your project, and I thought the two of you should meet.”

“Well, please…” I looked around. Each desk had a chair, and I could lean. “Have a seat. Perhaps you’d tell me which accounts you’ve worked on?”

Sunshine leaned back in her chair and kicked her feet out, the picture of ease. “Every damned one. I’ve been here at Bradford for thirteen long years, passed over again and again for promotion because I’m not hot enough to sit in creative meetings.” She seemed entirely pleased with this assessment. “So now I’m 52, by far the most experienced and talented graphic designer in the place, and just about ready to perform a few selective vasectomies, if you’re going to give me the chance.”

Monique uttered a sound that might have been considered laughter out of someone less upright.

The world was spinning very rapidly for me. “Well,” I said slowly to try to buy some thinking time. “I’ve only got you for ten hours a week for three weeks. Think you can help me put together an entire campaign in that time?”

Sunshine sat forward and rested her elbows on her knees. “Nobody up there knows what I do, anyway. You can have me full time. I’ll work it out.”

Monique shot me a triumphant look, and I couldn’t help the grin that stretched across my cheeks. “Okay, then. Let’s do this!”

“I’m going to set up your new account. Sunshine, I’ll do one for you, too.”

“Outstanding.” Sunshine rubbed strong hands together. “Are we running silent?”

“Better than silent—we’re going to do one amazing campaign and one fake one.”

That made Sunshine shout some kind of battle cry. “Let’s do it!”

Monique shook a demure fist in the air and left; I shut the door behind her.

“Okay—here’s what I’m thinking. Troy is not only using the wrong name for the campaign but is also targeting the wrong audience. You and I aren’t going to do shiny black ads that copy the House of Marinello’s style guide. We’re going female. To appeal to the three Marinello daughters, I need something very definitely not normal.” I thought of Amy—amazing Amy—and an idea crystalized in me as I spoke. “I need something paranormal.”

Sunshine began to grin, and I held up a hand to forestall her comment. Let me get this out first, then we’ll brainstorm.

“I want curves every place that the House of Marinello ads have straight lines,” I told her. “I want the texture and feel of smoke—or think of it as clouds instead of smoke, if you prefer. Soft, mottled gray where they have high-gloss black. And I want three separate ads, each with a different logo.”

I ran through my unified logo concept for each of the three daughters, and Sunshine was immediately filled with ideas.

“And you’ll let me run with this? If you don’t rework everything I do, I’ll create an award-winning campaign for you in three weeks, plus some shit for Precious Treasures. Agreed?”

“I won’t second-guess you, but I want to work with you.”

“Fine. Just don’t change things because you can, you know?”

Yeah, she’d clearly been working with Troy and others like him. “I know. You have autonomy.”

Her grin was like sunshine. Maybe she wasn’t so inappropriately named after all. “What are you going to do?” she asked me.

“I’ve got a very important next step,” I said as I sat at my desk.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

A. Anna Maria emails Casimir, asking him to assist her in setting up travel arrangements for Troy and herself--as well as the graphic designer they'll be bringing. Benvenuto in Italia, Sunshine!

B. Anna Maria emails Matteo, thanking him for the opportunity to pitch to him and telling him that Bradford Worldwide will be presenting two entirely different campaigns for his consideration.

C. Cut to the chase. Skip the bureaucratic boredom; make the next scene the presentation.


OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE. You have until Sunday evening, July 3 to vote—although please note: I don’t actually write these until Wednesday or Thursday, so feel free to send late votes if you want! I’ll send you the next installment on July 8.



Recap: Anna Maria has three weeks to put together a winning campaign; her prize will be a promotion to an account manager position. Her surprise allies are Monique Selensky (the head of Human Resources) and Sunshine (a graphic designer who has been passed over f few times too often). She has a small office away from the rest of the company, a good supply of native intelligence, and a spirit guide named Amy who shows up only when Anna Maria is alone to nudge her efforts in the right direction.

Chapter Nine: Strategy

When my office phone rang, Sunshine and I both jumped. In the twenty-four hours since I’d forced my way into my own office, no-one had called.

The silence of not being Troy’s assistant was delicious.

“Anna Maria Capelli,” I answered, trying to sound official.

“He’s on his way! Right now!” The voice on the other end was whispering and breathless.

“Beg your pardon?”

“Mr. Donovan! He just left the office headed for you!”

“Who is this?”

“I’m Winnifred! Mrs. Selensky said I should call you if he was heading for you, and he’s heading for you!”

Sunlight through dark clouds; clarity came to me. “You mean Monique hired you as a temp for Troy, and told you to let me know if he was coming down here?”

“Yes! The elevator doors are opening—there he goes!”

“Thanks, Winnifred. I owe you.”

“Bye!”

I hung up. “Red alert, Sunshine. Troy’s on his way. You have maybe thirty seconds.”

She’d moved what she called “a decent monitor” into the office and flipped immediately so the screen showed nothing but the Bradford Worldwide log. She and I both cleared our desks of all loose paper, shoving things into drawers. “Clear!” She called like a bull rider, throwing her arms in the air. “I’m out. Let me know when I can come back.”

Sunshine was fast. She was out the door and heading for the bathroom before I heard the elevator doors open in the lobby.

I pulled out a blank pad of paper and was tapping it thoughtfully when I looked up in surprise. “Troy! What are you doing down here?”

“Nice office,” he said in a mocking tone. Then he favored me with his “I Know How To Charm The Ladies” smile and handed me a cup. “I brought you some coffee.”

This was such blatant role reversal that I was surprised into taking it. “Thanks. Two sugars and a little cream, right?” I lifted the lid hopefully.

“Oh,” he said as he dragged Sunshine’s chair over to my desk. “I didn’t know how you take it.”

“Black. Well, thanks anyway.” I set it aside. I knew exactly how he liked his coffee, and that he’d bitch if he didn’t get soy milk.

“So, kitten. How are you doing?” He regarded my empty desk with a smirk. “Not quite as easy as it looks, huh?”

I batted my eyelashes at him. “Sure isn’t. But I’ve got some ideas. How are you doing?”

“Couldn’t be better. It’s going to be another award-winning presentation.”

Sunshine had contacts in the graphics department. She’d reported that Troy’s instructions to the creative team had been contradictory and confusing. But what else is new?

“I’m sure.”

“So, doll—I saw that you wrote to Casimir.”

“Yes, I copied you on the email.”

“I see that. But kitten—you wrote it in Italian.”

“Well, yeah. The client is Italian, after all.”

“I may not have made this clear to you but I don’t speak Italian.” He waved a piece of printer paper at me.

I took it from him. Of course it was a copy of my email. “There’s always Google Translate,” I said.

He shook his head. “You’re my Google Translate. So translate.”

What an irritating man. “I told him that we were pleased to be presenting to the House of Marinello in three weeks, and that you and I had a little lover’s contest going on.”

“A contest?”

“Yes, master. I told him you and I were having a little competition to see who could come up with a better campaign. That way they won’t be surprised when you and I present two different campaigns.”

He tucked his head back on his neck, annoyed. “I assumed we’d let Nicholson be the judge between your campaign and mine, and we’d just present the best one.”

I masked my contempt. Of course that’s how you’d want to play it. I’d be shut out.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. He’s already written back to say his father thinks it’s a charming idea.” I smiled at him sweetly.

“And I suppose you want to go to the presentation, of course.” Troy was annoyed.

“Of course. And I’ll want to bring my designer.”

His half-laugh was involuntary. “Are you sure? I hear you got that old hippie. You really want to bring someone like that to a presentation?”

My smile was now stiff to hide my dislike. “It’s all right, Troy. The House of Marinello doesn’t need any more models. I’ll be fine with the Old Hippie.”

“Rookie mistake.” He stood and tapped the paper where it lay on my desk. “From now on, you write him in English. He can use Google Translate.”

“No more Italian for you,” I said, revising his sentence to imply I would do his bidding. “Got it. Are you going to bring your new assistant to the presentation?”

“Who—Wendy?” Her name was Winnifred, but never mind. “Not likely. Ever seen her? I don’t make that rookie mistake. When you’re dealing with the fashion world, you need to look good. I’ll handle this alone. Looks matter, you know.”

He ogled my breasts and left. Not a moment too soon, since I was on the edge of noting that actually producing good work was even more important than looking good.

I heard the elevator doors close before Amy appeared. She sat neatly on Sunshine’s desk and shook her head.

“Troy’s spirit guide is hopelessly bored. He says Troy has never once heard the voice of his “better angels,” or what one might call his conscience. I’m the envy of all the spirit guides. You’re a peach, Anna Maria!”

She looked at me fondly and all of my anger at Troy drained away. “Thanks! I think you’re awesome, too!”

“Naturally.” She smoothed her blonde bob and preened. “You’ll want to cultivate that Winnifred, who—it must be admitted—has no idea how to dress herself to flatter her assets. Still, she’s got a good head on her shoulders and she already wants to help in any effort that will put Troy in his place.”

“I’ll get her email from Monique.”

“Good. Monique is looking for some way to help. You need to give her a project.”

“A project for someone from Human Resources? Like what?”

Amy looked at me, her graceful blonde eyebrows arching. “Haven’t I heard you say that no time was ever wasted if it was spent researching the target audience?”

“Yes, but…oh. I see. I can ask Monique to look into the House of Marinello.”

“Not just the House. You need to know everything you can about the daughters. They’re your judge, jury, and executioner, and I can assure you that Troy is not giving the slightest consideration to them. With the exception of a detailed study on which cologne he should wear to the presentation.”

I huffed my contempt, already emailing Monique.

When I finished, Amy was studying me. “What?” I asked.

“You’re a very satisfactory person to guide,” she said, “but it would be a great deal easier if you could hear me when others were around.”

I nodded. “It would. How do I do that?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know. But when you were lunching with Nicholson? And told him he should tell Matteo the truth about the fake engagement? I was telling you to do that exact thing. Did you hear me?”

“I… I don’t think so. I was trying to decide what you would have advised me to do.”

She considered me. “Maybe that’s enough. Keep trying that. When you’re faced with a choice, see if you can hear me. I’ll do my best to guide you.”

“Thank you, Amy.” I realized that I’d stopped thinking of her as a hallucination; Amy was now definitely on the team.

Monique came through with Winnifred’s email, and told me she was delighted with her research project. She’d have a report for me in 48 hours. Nice to have the director of a major company on my side.

Winnifred was nervous and sweet. Troy wasn’t being particularly nice to her and she was grateful that I could tell her how to do her job (my job). Within half an hour, we were chatting like friends.

Sunshine came back, filled with news. “Troy’s angered the entire creative team. They want to know what we’re doing.”

“So he can cheat off my ideas, as usual,” I said.

“So? What are we doing for our stealth campaign? Besides total knockoffs of the House of Marinello standard?”

I couldn’t actually hear my spirit guide, but I could make assumptions about how Amy would advise me. I talked through my idea with Sunshine. “We don’t have Monique’s market research yet, but I do know that the three daughters are fiercely independent. They want to stand on their own, not get notice only because of their father.”

“Fat chance,” Sunshine said, spinning in her chair. “They could be the best designers in the world, they wouldn’t get the press they’re going to get if it wasn’t for Daddy.”

She was right, of course, and I nodded at her. “But we don’t care about that. We do care that Troy gives them a campaign that annoys them.”

Sunshine was grinning. “Yeah, we do. Like what?”

“What do you think of ‘Chips Off the Old Block?’ That would be insulting, wouldn’t it? To women who wanted to be seen as independent of Papa?”

Sunshine barked with laughter. “I can totally work up a logo. But will it translate to Italian?”

“Good point. No—hang on. If it doesn’t translate, and has to be explained, that would make it worse, not better.”

“Genius! I’m on it!”

It was wrong to feel so much satisfaction at setting a trap for Troy, and yet I couldn’t help myself. He’d only get into trouble if he snooped around our fake campaign and tried to steal a very bad idea.

If he listened to his spirit guide and did the smart thing, he wouldn’t fall into any traps.

I decided that when next I got to speak to Amy, she would approve of the plan. So I frowned at my computer and got back to organizing my actual campaign ideas. Work went slowly but productively. That afternoon, Casimir returned my email. I translated his message.

Anna Maria, we look forward to seeing your teams in three weeks. I’m handling lodging and accommodations for the presentation for Bradford Worldwide and the other two companies that will be presenting. May I enquire as to how many hotel rooms you will need?

I blush to ask it. I know you and Troy shared a room when you were so graciously hosting us in St. Bart’s. But I do not wish to presume. As my father’s son (brought up in the easy physicality of the fashion world), I’m entirely sure you’ll want to share a room with your fiancé. As my mother’s son (brought up in the incense and candles of the Catholic Church), I’m sure you’ll want separate rooms.

Now what will you do? How will you answer me? I’ve put you in an impossible situation…and yet I suspect your clever mind will somehow prevail.

Naughty of him. I couldn’t help but smile. “Hey, Old Hippie,” I called to Sunshine, who loved her nickname. “You mind if I share your room in Milan?”

“I’m going to Milan?! Fucking-A! Really?”

She was thrilled. Her enthusiasm fed my own. “Yes, you’re coming. You’re doing the creative, aren’t you?”

“No one else has ever taken me to a pitch.”

“Well, they’re idiots.”

“Fuck yeah, they are! Hell, yes, you can share my room! I’ll carry your goddamned luggage!”

I wrote back to Casimir.

Casimir, Bradford Worldwide will make our pair of presentations to you with three employees: Troy, myself, and our (female) graphic designer. So we will need two rooms. You may decide for yourself if I’m going to heaven or to hell.

His reply came quickly.

Applause! You aren’t just a brilliant chef and a gracious hostess—you’re prepared for top-level diplomatic relations. Well done, Miss Capelli!

It’s wrong to take sides—but I confess: On a very secret level, I’m rooting for your campaign to beat Troy’s. And I would certainly be glad on a professional level if Bradford Worldwide was selected to work with the House of Marinello. I look forward to meeting you again in a few weeks.

Charmer. I wondered if he, too, could be added to my roster of Team Anna Maria.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

A. Monique’s research provides surprising information on the three daughters, and Anna Maria refines her campaign accordingly.

B. Team Anna Maria goes to happy hour. Monique, Sunshine, and Winnifred discuss why they have such animosity toward Troy. Several margaritas in, Monique discloses a surprising story.

C. Anna Maria and Sunshine take a field trip to New York’s finest boutiques to consider fashion and fashion marketing.

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE. You have until Sunday evening, July 10 to vote—although please note: I don’t actually write these until Wednesday or Thursday, so feel free to send late votes if you want! I’ll send you the next installment on July 15.


Recap: Anna Maria is trying to earn her place as an account executive at Bradford Worldwide, but she’s come up against a surprisingly misogynistic corporate philosophy. She’s working with a team (Sunshine, the designer, and Monique, the head of Human Resources) which is united in a dislike for the actions of corporate founder Nicholson Bradford and his protege (and Anna Maria’s boss) Troy.

Chapter Ten: Happy Hour

“This is the dive-iest dive bar I’ve ever been in. This place has been here the whole time?”

I followed Sunshine into the low, dark room. Late afternoon light barely penetrated from the windows set high on the wall, providing a view of ankles walking past on the sidewalk outside.

“Isn’t it great? Hey, Milt.”

The bartender grunted some form of greeting at her from behind a bar seemingly held up by decades of black grease and subterranean attitude. Sunshine pulled out a chair from one of the tables; there were no booths.

“I can’t believe I never noticed this bar in the basement.” I sat, resisting the urge to find a spray bottle of something strong to wipe down every surface.

“No fussy drinks. No expense accounts. No ‘see and be seen’ opportunities. And you know who never, ever, ever shows up here?” Sunshine looked her question to me and I shook my head. The health inspector? “Nicholson. Troy, neither. They wouldn’t be caught dead down here.” She leaned back and crossed her ankles in satisfaction.

In that case, maybe I liked this place after all. I surveyed the space. Among the handful of patrons, there wasn’t a single person I recognized, and yet I was just one high-speed elevator away from the rat race. “This place is great,” I realized.

“You know it!”

She looked past me and nodded to where Monique Selensky was coming in. A drab, nervous young woman was at her elbow. “Afternoon, Milton,” Monique called to the bartender.

“Miz Selensky,” he replied, straightening. So he could speak. “Your usual?”

“Yes, please, Milton. Thank you. Good afternoon, ladies.”

Sunshine half-winked at me. “See? Monique understands the power of the Below Street Level.”

I blinked. “What’s Below Street Level?”

Monique pulled out her chair and sat. “Name of this fine establishment. Do you know Winnifred?”

I was pleased to meet Winnifred at last. We’d spoken by phone and exchanged increasingly friendly emails, but this was the first chance I’d had to see my replacement. Immediately it was easy to see why she was having a hard time with Troy. As my spirit guide Amy had noted, Winnifred had no idea how to play up her best features, and Troy was a very shallow human.

Now I saw that Winnifred had clear, gray eyes and a tremulous smile to go with the intelligence and wit. She needed a spirit guide.

Or maybe just a friend. Huh.

The four of us made polite chatter until the bartender put a martini in front of Monique. “I guess I can do table service for once,” he said grudgingly. “What do you want?”

Sunshine cackled. “Usually we have to go to the bar to order. Milt has a crush on Monique, though, right, Milt?”

Milt looked like a stone idol. He didn’t even crack a smile. “What do you want, Sunshine?”

“What else? Beer. Don’t ask me. Give me whatever you have on tap.”

He grunted in what I realized was approval and turned to me.

“Um…” It had been a very long week. “Tequila Sunrise, please.”

Winnifred cooed and said “Me, too!” even in the face of Milt’s evident disgust. He’d turned away by the time I put a mental thumb on the blowing bit of gossamer in my brain. Was that Amy whispering to me? “Glass of red instead,” I called to the bartender. “Skip the tequila.”

Yep. I thirsted for the oblivion of a delicious drink, but the sense of “that’s right” that came over me when I changed my order made me all the more sure that I was getting better at hearing Amy when others were around.

No drunken evening, then. Boring. But I was getting used to the benefits of a hangover-free morning.

Winnifred pouted. “Oh, okay. Me, too,” she said.

Milt turned back. “I don’t have no wine list,” he said threateningly.

I waved my hand. “Whatever. House red.”

He frowned at me, which I took as an indication that he had decided not to pass judgment on me quite yet. It shouldn’t have pleased me, but it did.

Milt poured our drinks and then put them on the bar with significant thumps. Obedient, I got up to retrieve them and placed the beverages before my team. “To the end of a damned long week,” I said.

We raised our glasses and drank.

“Long, but good,” Sunshine said as she sighed in satisfaction around her beer.

“Very good,” I agreed. “Winnie, is Troy still working on the Chip Off the Old Block campaign?”

She nodded, blushing happily at her nickname. “I’ve seen the artwork, though, and I think it’s pretty good.”

Sunshine snorted. “I’ve seen it, too. It’s perfectly capable, but based on Monique’s research, he’s way off base on this one.”

Monique reviewed her findings. “The oldest daughter, Dia, is a control freak. She wants to be in charge, and it’s going to kill her to have anyone make implications that she’s riding on her father’s coattails.”

“So the Chip Off The Old Block campaign is doomed?” I knew this answer—we’d based our entire effort on Monique’s research—but I needed the reassurance of her nod.

“Doomed. The other two daughters defer to their sister. Fira is all about beauty. She’s the one most likely to be swayed by Troy.”

We all grunted (our best Milt impersonation) because if nothing else, Troy was a magnificently beautiful human.

“He’s counting on that,” Winnifred reported. “He’s had his tailor in twice to adjust the fit of his suit.” Her eyes were wide. Sweet, sweet innocence, coming into the icy shadow of profound narcissism. Poor dear needed protecting.

“And Tisa, the baby of the family, is the in-house wild child. She’s gotten into trouble on three continents and would have a police record if she wasn’t still only seventeen. But there can be no doubt of her talent. The sisters might resist comparison to their famous father, but all three inherited a discerning fashion eye. They’ll be worldwide sensations in no time—provided they select the right PR company.”

I raised my glass again. “And the right team.”

“Fuckin’ A,” Sunshine agreed. “Four more days until Italy, and we are ready.”

We weren’t. There were a million details I needed to nail down, and our multimedia campaign was little more than a framework so far. But I could pull it together in the time we had left. As long as I stayed away from the tequila.

Monique, on the other hand, caught Milt’s eye and swirled her nearly-empty glass at him. He scurried to obey. Soon we were several rounds in (two full glasses of wine stared at me from the table as I slowly sipped my first; thank you, Amy) and Winnifred had loosened up enough to share that afternoon’s irritant.

“Troy asked me if I’d made sure my desk chair was reinforced,” she said, big eyes wide. “He was calling me fat. I know I need to lose some weight, but—“

Sunshine slammed her beer down in interruption. “The fuck you do. You’re perfect, Winnie. He’s the pig. Don’t you listen to that shit.”

Monique nodded. The only visible evidence that she was on her third martini was that her shoulders weren’t quite as taut. “Any slur to one is a slur to all. Feel free to report him to Human Resources. Not that it will do any good, but I am keeping a record.”

“I’d like to report that he calls me the Old Hippie,” Sunshine said, “except I really like the name, so fuck him.”

Monique patted Sunshine’s arm with distraction. I watched Monique. “Why isn’t it enough to report abusive behavior?”

She probably wouldn’t have answered if it hadn’t been for Milt and his cocktails. A few drinks in, Monique’s shielding was down. “Because Nicholson is in charge. Oh, every worker has rights. You can sue your employer. But very few people are willing to go to the trouble because someone called them the Old Hippie.”

“Especially if they like it,” Sunshine grinned.

“So most issues come down to what the leadership will and won’t tolerate. And Nicholson runs the place. And he’s… he’s not a nice man.”

I realized that she had tears in her eyes. “What happened?” I asked quietly.

She looked away, her movements as precise and tidy as if she wasn’t slightly inebriated on a Friday evening. “I founded the company with him, did you know that?”

She measured our blank looks. “No shit?” Sunshine spoke for all of us.

Monique nodded. “I did. Almost twenty-seven years ago. He was so young. And charming. And oh, he was good looking.”

“Still is,” Winnie said, and then looked about as if fearful that someone would hear.

Monique nodded. “He was insecure, opening the company, and he leaned on me for support. Which I was happy to give. That’s my job. Human Resources.” He voice trailed off. She was lost in the memory.

Sunshine must have nudged her with a sneakered foot because Monique startled and Sunshine nodded to her. “Yeah? What happened?”

Monique’s eyebrows went up and she looked away. “What do you suppose happened?” She took a drink and gathered herself. “Oldest story in the world. He told me he was in love with me. And I believed him. He wanted to marry me. We celebrated for an entire weekend when we landed the sunglasses account. By the time we got the car account and then the celebrity chef, his confidence was back. And he dropped me. Hard.”

All three of her listeners winced. “Shit,” Sunshine said.

Her story was disturbingly similar to my recent past. Troy was charming. Troy was handsome. I’d had fantasies about Troy professing his love for me—and here was the reality, sitting across from me in an unbuttoned tailored suit. What would have happened to me if I’d “gotten” Troy? Here it was, undeniable and chilling. “I’m so sorry, Monique.”

My words earned a small smile from her. “He’s had two marriages since then. I can only thank God I didn’t listen when he wanted to have a baby.”

“Oh, God,” Winnie breathed.

Monique’s posture had become even more upright. She looked like a queen when she finished her story. “And,” she intoned, “he gave me body lice.”

“Ew!” I couldn’t help my cry of revulsion.

“Crabs! That bastard!” Sunshine was belligerent.

“It could have been worse,” Winnie whispered, and that cleared Monique’s vision. She leaned forward and put her hand on Winnie’s.

“You’re absolutely right, my dear. Thank you for reminding me.” She smiled at Winnie, warmth returning to her voice.

“Can’t believe you stuck with him,” Sunshine marveled. “That bastard. I would have quit.”

Monique shrugged. “I’m a partner. A co-owner. Of course I’m not going to leave. This is my company, too.”

“But if you’re a partner, why does Nicholson set all the policy?” I was clearly too sober if this is the way I was thinking, while Sunshine and Winnie were plotting revenge.

“Because Nicholson owns 34% of the company and I only owe 33%.”

Happy hours were so useful for the gathering of information that would certainly remain hidden if not for Milt and his libations. “Who owns the other 33%?”

Monique smirked. “His mother. Mommy Dearest. Helene Forbes Bradford. She lives in Connecticut in a hermetically-sealed jar. No, dear,” she said to Winnie, “Not really. But she is perhaps the most perfectly-preserved old lady I’ve ever come across. That is one bitter, icy bitch. Oh, dear. Perhaps I’ve had enough.”

Nevertheless, she made her swirling-glass gesture to Milt again, who brought her a refill promptly.

“Now,” Monique said once she’d refreshed herself. “What’s next, ladies?”

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?  YOU DECIDE:

A. It’s time. Let’s get to the presentations (which will be the end of Act 1).

B. Team Anna Maria comes up with a childish gesture of revenge on Nicholson.

C. Disaster: One of those unknown patrons at Below Street Level overheard more than he should have, and now the team is in trouble.

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE. You have until Sunday evening, July 17 to vote—although please note: I don’t actually write these until Wednesday or Thursday, so feel free to send late votes if you want! I’ll send you the next installment on July 22.
 



Recap: Anna Maria has had three short weeks to pull together a publicity and advertising campaign for the House of Marinello’s “Precious Jewels” campaign, featuring the work of the three daughters of the world-famous Matteo Marinello. As Anna Maria and her designer, Sunshine, worked to create their own campaign, they also fended off the efforts of Anna Maria’s boss, Troy, to steal their ideas. To further complicate matters, Troy and Anna Maria must pretend to be an engaged couple to perpetuate a lie Troy told Matteo. Anna Maria is going to need the wisdom of her spirit guide, Amy.

Chapter Eleven—The Presentation

Sunshine took one look at the so-called conference room at the House of Marinello and uttered her unfiltered reaction.

“Mother Puss-Bucket!”

That made me grin, which was a welcome change from the shocks currently fizzing every nerve ending in my spinal column. “The building used to be the medical school in Milan in the 1800s,” I whispered. “This is the old operating theater.”
“Well, it’s fucking awesome. And intimidating as hell.”

She was right. Five banks of seats rose steeply in a semi-circle from an oval at the center, where a presenter would stand below the eyes of her harshest critics. (Or, I suppose, a surgeon could show students how to cut into some hapless patient anesthetized by too much Prosecco.)

“Dial it back, there, Sunny.” Troy was either not paying attention or deliberately got Sunshine’s name wrong. “Try to look not quite so much like a rube seeing the big city for the first time. We have a reputation to protect, here.”

Sunshine flared an annoyed nostril at me to show her contempt of Troy as we were shown to our seats. The three of us had been assigned a bench high up in the theater, and the other PR firm’s teams smiled smugly if they were seated below us or watched us neutrally if they were on our level. The assistant who seated us gave us earpieces and showed us how to adjust the channel to listen in German, Italian, or English.

“Like at the UN!” Sunshine whispered happily, pointing to the translators sitting before microphones in tiny glassed booths to the side.

“Christ—can you get her to shut up?” Troy’s elbow was sharper than it needed to be to get my attention. “Why’d you bring her, anyway? What’s she doing with that stupid portfolio? You’re not going to embarrass us, are you?”

I smiled sweetly at him and said nothing. Maybe Amy was whispering to me from the spirit world and maybe she wasn’t…but I was determined. I wasn’t going to let Troy upset me or make a scene.

The front tier of seats, closest to the theater floor, didn’t have benches—it had comfortable padded seats. VIPs go there, I thought. Or the Marinello family.

When the procession of people came in, I was pleased to see I was right. The House of Marinello’s senior staff took their places to the right and left, leaving the middle seats open. Junior staff filed in from the back, above us, and filled the final two tiers.

Then we all sat quietly, trying not to cough or fidget. Occasionally someone would whisper to a seat mate, but the atmosphere was pregnant with anticipation.

It took twelve minutes past the start time before the door at the front was thrown open and I saw Casimir, the business manager and Matteo Marinello’s only son, fanning his arms into the room as if he could move his family along faster. I smiled to see him; we'd been emailing regularly and he felt like an old friend.

The daughters came in by age order—twenty-year-old Diamante first, followed by Zaffira, and then the seventeen-year-old baby, Ametista. But as soon as they were all through the narrow door, they linked arms and stood at the center, staring at the faces above them without the slightest hint of nerves. These women had owned the world since the day they were born.

Sunshine nudged me (sandwiched between her and Troy, there was a lot of nudging going on and my ribs were objecting). “Dia’s in pure white,” she said. “Told you.”

Diamante was famous for her wardrobe, which was almost always inky black. But the white-blond hair looked just as spectacular against her snowy heavy-silk dress. Severely narrow skirt. Deep lapels on the austere shirtwaist. Completely plain white pumps that I happened to know carried a four-figure price tag.

“She wears white at home, not black. Monique was right.”

I nodded, studying the sisters as intently as they were studying us. The middle daughter, Fira, was a riot of color next to her sister. She wore a log plaid skirt, one side hiked high to show lavender Victorian spool-heeled boots laced high on her calves. I wanted a pair immediately. Not a single color in her striped top matched anything in the skirt. And yet the whole was a dizzying, delicious exuberance.

And Tisa, the avante garde designer? She wore a plain pair of Levis, unremarkable white sneakers, and a white tank top. The contrast to her sisters was so startling that I had to muffle a laugh of appreciation. The Precious Jewels had not disappointed.

It was unclear if they were equally pleased with what they saw. They stood watching us until Casimir managed to usher the last two members of his family into the room and then into their seats—Matteo Marinello, with his famous wife and muse Rubia on his arm. She wore patent stilettos and a black sheath dress tailored to show off her enviable figure.

“She’s still hot,” Troy muttered to me.

“A face that could launch a thousand ships,” I replied, but he wasn’t much interested in my literary reference. Never mind.

Casimir, dressed in gray suit pants and an unfussy white business shirt, was clearly the sheepdog of the family. Once Matteo (in a dark purple fine wool suit from his menswear collection) was seated and surrounded by the four beautiful blondes, Casimir turned to address the gathering.

“You should all be able to understand me. Is anyone having problems with the translators?” Hearing no objections, he went on. “Today we will see four presentations from the three finalists in our search for a PR and advertising firm for my sisters’ collections.” He smiled at Dia, Fira, and Tisa with warmth, his formal manner melting as he regarded them proudly. “First we’ll see the presentation from the German company, Einschlag, recommended by my sister Ametista.”

Tisa bounced in her seat and smiled at her sisters.

Four people rose from the second tier and made their way to the theater floor, where they pulled up a presentation on the screen. The translation was smooth and easy to follow. They spoke well, but I had my doubts that their concept—largely based on color blocks—was going to work.

“Bauhaus,” whispered Sunshine to me. “Mondrian. Still avante grade almost a century later.”

“You can see why Tisa likes it,” I agreed. “It’s got huge impact.”

“Dia might go for it. It’s stark enough. But Fira’s going to give them the boot. The lilac-colored boot.”

“Her shoes are awesome,” I whispered. Troy glared at us. I smiled sweetly at him and took his arm, clinging to him like a good fiancé.

When they finished, Tisa looked to her sisters and didn’t particularly like what she saw. She shrugged. Casimir introduced Fira’s recommended agency, a company from Los Angeles called Dazzle Incorporated.

Their presentation was the polar opposite of Einschlag. They were all about neon-bright colors and jump cuts. Even Fira wore a small frown and Dia pulled out her phone to check for anything more interesting to look at. The Dazzle Inc. team knew they were going down poorly.

“Too juvenile,” Sunshine murmured to me. “The sisters don’t want to be seen as young. They want respect at the couteur level. Not space in the juniors department.”

She was right. Dazzle had underestimated the ambitions of their potential client. The L.A. team slunk back to their seats. Casimir once again acted as emcee.

“My sister Dia declined to recommend an agency. That’s right, isn’t it, Dia?” She nodded once regally and her brother spoiled her effect by grinning at her, a sudden flash of good teeth that took about ten years off his appearance. “So we finish with the agency that is currently running the campaigns for the House of Marinello. Bradford Worldwide is Matteo’s recommendation, and we understand that they will actually present two different campaigns for our consideration today.”

Matteo turned to give us a wave and Troy waved back. Casimir went on.

“Our two presenters are Troy and Anna Maria. They happen to be engaged to be married to each other, and have challenged each other to work separately to create the campaign they think we’ll like best. Who will go first?”

Troy stood. “I”ll lead off for Bradford Worldwide.”

Matteo’s posture stiffened, which I interpreted as a disapproval that he wouldn’t allow his fiancé to go first. I put as much joy into my voice as I could manage with all these butterflies in my stomach, and called out in Italian.

“Age before beauty, right, darling?”

It took the translator a few seconds so Troy’s forced amusement was drowned out by the room of Italians, who were all chortling at my sally. Diamante turned in her seat to peer at me.

“Oh,” said Troy. “Would you like to go first? Darling?”

“Not at all. After you, master.” I used the Italian word for master, which is “maestro.” Regardless of what the Italians heard, I knew the connotation Troy would hear—that he was the conductor of an orchestra, and not my personal master. And yet I was fulfilling the terms of our agreement, which included me calling him “master.” I smiled at him again, dimpling coyly.

He regarded me from his stance, halfway into the aisle, and then remembered he’d turned us into an engaged couple. He bent and kissed my cheek, and no one else could hear the growl he uttered.

Not a growl of lust, either.

Begone. Get to work.

He recovered his swagger and took ownership of the theater floor. His thumb drive fit into the laptop and his presentation began smoothly.

But Sunshine and I (she was nudging me like mad) knew immediately that his strategy was going to fail.

“Bradford Worldwide has been honored to provide PR and advertising for the House of Marinello.” Troy began with a slide show of past Marinello videos, each on the same iconic black background with a hair-thin gold rule. The images mixed artful black-and-white photography with live-action clips from House of Marinello fashion shows, the models stalking the runway in full color.

“Now we’re delighted to provide strategy for the Precious Treasures Collection.”

“Precious Jewels,” I whispered to Sunshine, but my voice was drowned out by Dia, who called out.

“Not Precious Treasures, surely?” She spoke in English, interrupting Troy. “Isn’t it Precious Jewels?”

I kept a careful poker face as I watched Troy scramble. “Jewels? Ah. We’re suggesting something different.”

“My sisters and I aren’t treasures, to be hoarded and protected.”

Troy had been pushed to his back foot, metaphorically, and he had to recover. “Well, then. We’ll change that title. But I think you’ll like what we’ve come up with for you and your sisters.”

He turned back to the screen with a showman’s flourish. Over his head, twenty feet across, came the exact same format used for the House of Marinello—only the video clip of high-prancing fashion models had been replaced with slightly grainy video of a much-younger Matteo playing with his three toddler daughters on a grassy lawn. The clip ended on the tag line:

Precious Treasures: Chips off the old block.

Sunshine’s grip on my arm tightened and I kept my face still even if I couldn’t smother the gasp of amusement and shock. Troy had lifted our fake idea without any further interpretation. Like an idiot, he’d actually taken the bait.

It took a moment for the Italians to get the translation, but the murmurs grew louder until Diamante stood. “That’s enough. We don’t need to see anymore.”

Troy’s expression was hopeful and then wary. “We have a little more to…”

“Thank you,” she said, icy scorn dripping from her words. “No more needs to be seen. You may be seated.”

“It’s time,” a voice in my head whispered. Was that Amy? “Rescue him,” she said. “Bail him out of this mess. Get the job. Go now.”

I rose to my feet and clapped my hands sharply. “Well done, darling! Just like we practiced! All right—now please let us show you the actual campaign from Bradford Worldwide.”

I grabbed Sunshine, who grabbed her portfolio, and we made our way to the theater floor amid whispers and the soft sound of people adjusting their seats. Casimir smiled at me in encouragement.

I kissed Troy’s cheek when I arrived and planted a firm hand on his elbow. “You were perfect. Absolutely perfect. I’ll see if I can do as well.” I pushed him toward the stairs back to our seats and not knowing what else to do, he went.

I cleared the screen of his disaster and inserted our thumb drive. While it booted, I turned to the Marinellos.

“At Bradford Worldwide, we know the world has gone digital. Our strategies are on the cutting edge of views, likes, and follows. But we will never forget the impact of print—which is why we will never ignore the importance of print in your marketing. After all, Vogue has almost 168 million followers worldwide, but the truly impactful twenty-three million who get the magazine in print are the ones who crave and can afford the fashions. They are your true market. Sunshine?”

She opened the portfolio and pulled out old-school black boards of ad campaigns. She handed one to Dia, one to Fira, and one to Tisa. They immediately began to crane their heads to see what their sisters had gotten. Matteo and Rubia were also fascinated, and the whole family passed the boards back and forth while the people behind them leaned over to get a peek. Casimir left his place at the podium and his long legs ate up the stairs so he could see too.

“Let me show you all what we’re proposing.”

I used the screen to pull up the first image, which was all three ads side by side.

“You’ll see we’re using a smoky background—or deep clouds, if you prefer. We like the constancy of the background and its texture while still remaining neutral. As you can see, the designs pop. The focus is on the fashion, not the format. Of course we’ve used images from your previous collections so these will seem dated, but as you evolve, so can the campaign.”

The sisters were interested. Matteo and Rubia were still studying the print versions.

“I want to take a moment to explain our proposed logos.”

The image on the screen shifted to the logos Sunshine and I had created.

“As you’ll see, we’re proposing that each sister have her own logo—united with her sisters by style, but still showing her personality. For Diamanté’s brand, the round-cut diamond is in the center, flanked by her sisters—that’s Fira’s sapphire and Tisa’s amethyst.”

I advanced the image as I explained the variety. “To advertise your collections, Fira, your stone is in the center. And here we see Tisa’s jewel in the center, surrounded by her sisters. Just as Troy did in his mock presentation, we’re suggesting a different collection title—we’re going with Three Jewels rather than Precious Jewels. After all, the three of you aren’t exactly precious, are you?”

Small smiles. Straighter spines. Longer necks. The daughters were liking what they were hearing.

“I want to design a collection based on you,” Tisa called out.

I blinked. “On me?”

Tisa rose to her feet, her sneakers padding down the stairs. “No, not you. You’re darling, of course, but not you.” She reached us on the floor and stared worshipfully at Sunshine. “You! I can see an entire collection just in your collar bones!”

Sunshine’s eyebrows went way up but then she grinned and allowed the girl to take her hands and turn her into a better light. “Me? I’m fifty-three, you know.”

“I see them. I see the years. And your strength. You’re magnificent. Do you model?”

Sunshine barked in laughter and the harsh sound made Tisa laugh out lout and clap her hands. “No! I’m a graphic designer. And I do downhill mountain biking.”

Really? We’d been in each other’s pockets nonstop for three weeks and I didn’t know that.

“You’re a dream! My new muse!”

“Tisa!” Dia’s voice cracked like a whip. “Can we get back to the presentation, please?”

“I’ll talk to you later,” Tisa whispered as she left. Sunshine looked her delighted astonishment at me and I thought I heard a little moue of unhappiness from Troy’s direction.

“Please, Anna Maria. Your presentation is fascinating. Continue.” Casimir was the emcee, but it was Dia who was driving. I smiled at her.

“Thank you. So—we’re advocating calling your collections the Three Jewels from the House of Marinello. We want the Marinello logo on every ad, but not as the focal point. And for your tag line—tell me what you think of this.”

I switched to the next slide. On the same smokey background, the jewels were in place (Dia’s diamond in the center) above the words THREE JEWELS. Below that, the tag line:

Underestimate us at your own risk.

There was a moment of stunned surprise and then Fira shrieked with delight. Tisa laughed again. And Dia gave me one determined nod.

Sunshine held her hand up to me and I threw caution to the wind and slapped her a high five. We exchanged grins as the background noise in the theater grew. I gave it a moment and then raised my hand to regain their attention.

“I have one more idea that I’d like your approval on. I wonder if you noticed that each of your logos features a different pattern in the smoke above the jewels.”

I reversed the direction of the slides to show Dia’s logo. “You can see that above the diamonds there is this shape.” I used a laser pointer to outline the two fangs just barely visible through the smoke. “Dia, we thought your spirit should be a vampire. Sexy, formidable, forbidden. Dangerous.”

She’d grown an actual smile at last. Yes. She was digging it.

“Fira, with your color and movement, I wanted to suggest a pixie to you—a woodland fairy. But not an innocent, safe sprite—instead, we’ve used the wings of a bird of prey for you.” I outlined the shape of two ascending wings caught in a moment of flight. “Free, wild, predatory. Beautiful.”

Now the whole family was smiling, and the murmurs in the theater had grown. Tisa stood and slashed her hand at the crowd. “Silenzio!” she shouted. “E il mio turno!”

I smiled at her intensity and advanced the slide to her logo. “Tisa, your spirit was the easiest of all. We’ve used the flames of the phoenix, which is reborn anew into power and glory. Just as you push the limits of fashion with each avant garde collection, the phoenix cannot be anticipated. It symbolizes rebirth, resilience, and the unexpected.”

The theater erupted into applause. The teams from Einschlag and Dazzle were clapping, too. Troy was on his feet, grinning and giving me two thumbs up.

Yeah. I know. I pulled your feet out of the fire, there.

Matteo rose and used his hands to pat down the sound. “I have an announcement,” he said.
 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:


A. Obviously, Bradford Worldwide wins the contract. Matteo tries to hire Sunshine to move to Italy as his youngest daughter’s muse and inspiration.

B. Obviously, Bradford Worldwide wins the contract. Matteo is so impressed with what he thinks was a set-up (Troy provides a crappy campaign and lets Anna Maria blow away the competition with the “real” campaign) that he insists that Troy and Anna Maria must marry at his country villa—including a weekend at the villa to discuss details.

C. Obviously, Bradford Worldwide wins the contract. Matteo listens to his daughters, who insist that Troy be removed from the account; they want to work exclusively with Anna Maria and Sunshine.

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE. You have until Sunday evening, July 24 to vote—although please note: I don’t actually write these until Wednesday or Thursday, so feel free to send late votes if you want! I’ll send you the next installment on July 29.

 

Recap: Anna Maria and Sunshine have not only pulled Troy’s bacon out of the fire (pretending that his version of the Bradford Worldwide proposal to the House of Marinello was deliberately bad to make the real proposal more enticing)…but they’ve also scored a direct hit with the three designer daughters. Matteo is about to announce the winner of the design competition—and a huge majority of readers voted to give Troy the axe, relieving this author of her major bad guy when we’re not quite halfway through  the book. And so, bound by the opinions of the voters, we must figure out a way to give Troy a swift kick in the crotch without rendering him useless for the rest of the book. You guys are really putting me through my paces!

 

Chapter Twelve—the Commitment

 

Matteo rose and used his hands to pat down the applause in the repurposed 18th-century medical theater that held his employees. “I have an announcement,” he said.

 

He moved from his chair to stand on the floor next to me and Sunshine. Our most recent slide was still up on the screen overhead, showing the amethyst-colored flames of Tisa’s phoenix logo. We’d planned to finish up with a formal request to work with the House of Marinello on the Three Jewels Collection, but Matteo’s arrival in the presentation space ended our proposal abruptly.

 

“Go with it,” whispered the voice of my spirit guide, Amy. “Be flexible. He’s smiling. This is good news. But don’t be afraid to show a little spine, either.”

 

So I stood at the center of the theater until Matteo reached me, and then I shook his hand. Only after the greeting did I back away to give him the floor.

 

“Enough?” I thought to Amy. “Not servile. Not backing away while keeping my eyes down—but a turning over of the podium from one equal to another?”

 

She didn’t answer, but I felt that she would approve.

 

The change in authority on the theater floor wasn’t actually from one equal to another. When Matteo stood before his company, his trademark head of white hair artfully tousled, there was no question that he was the alpha dog in this room. A benevolent father figure…as long as we didn’t lead him into a display of his equally legendary temper.

 

“I thank all three companies for their presentations,” Matteo said. “Your creativity and experience are greatly appreciated. I won’t draw this out. I thank the representatives from Einschlag and Dazzle Inc, but without even consulting with my daughters, I know that we’re going to continue our productive partnership with Bradford Worldwide.”

 

Heat blazed along my nerves, from toes to ear tips. I was suddenly aware of every current of air in the place because I was throwing off waves of over-warm excitement. Yes!

 

I grabbed Sunshine’s hand—she was reaching for mine—and we squeezed each other and tried not to scream. “Professional,” I said out of the corner of my mouth. “We need to look professional.”

 

“Fuck that,” she said. “You should stop doing that tap dance, then,”

 

I looked down and saw that I was shifting rapidly from foot to foot, too swollen with energy to remain still. That caused me to laugh, which passed like electricity to Sunshine and then to the daughters and then we were all laughing. Behind them, on his bench, Troy was working his phone. Texting Nicholson, no doubt, to tell him he’d landed the account.

 

I landed this account, I thought. Damn you—you are not taking credit for this success!

 

But my euphoria faded as I realized…yes, he could take credit. He would take credit. My hard work—the hard work of Sunshine and Monique and even Winnifred, Troy’s terrorized temporary assistant—would go unheralded. I’d be back at the desk outside Troy’s office within the week, getting his coffee and sending orchids to his suddenly ex-girlfriends.

 

“Spine,” whispered Amy. I was getting better at hearing her even when I wasn’t alone. “This isn’t over yet. Smile. Stand straight.”

 

So I got a grip on myself—and another grip on Sunshine—and attempted to beam satisfaction at the crowd.

 

And then Dia rose.

 

“Father,” she said—and she must have learned her natural authority from him, because all heads swiveled to her. “Your choice is, of course, excellent, and we agree. But we have a provision.”

 

Matteo offered a grin and a raised eyebrow, as if this was nothing new in their family dynamic. “Of course you do, figlia più grande. What is it?”

 

The teams from Germany and Los Angeles had been packing up their belongings, but they froze at her words and sat back down. The staff leaned forward, fearful of missing a word. Troy was still texting. No doubt telling Nicholson how brilliant he’d been.

 

Dia rose and came to the floor of the theater to redefine my entire existence with her “provision.” She didn’t move so much as flow, as graceful and as deadly as a river. The vampire fangs were the perfect symbol for her. My heartbeat slowed in anticipation.

 

To my surprise, she crossed to me, her hand outstretched. I took it and her handshake was firm and cool. Then she shook Sunshine’s hand, and turned back to her father.

 

“My sisters and I know that we will work very happily with Anna Maria and Luce del Sol.” The unnecessary translator in my ear defined the Italian word for ‘sunshine.’ “We will be glad to enter into a partnership with them.”

 

Bang. There went my heart, back to it’s normal rhythm. Maybe just a tad fast… I smiled my thanks. But she wasn’t done.

 

“However, we don’t like that fellow up there.” She threw a casual and dismissive arm at Troy. Einschlag and Dazzle Inc followed the line of her pointing and gasped at the victim. “We know he works for you on the House of Marinello account, and that’s up to you. But we only want Anna Maria.”

 

My eyebrows shot up and the not-so-hushed murmur of voices in the listening audience drowned out whatever Amy was telling me to say. What the hell??

 

Sunshine had a death grip on my hand, and I looked at her, proud to see she was not grinning. But her voice, hidden under the buzz, was elated enough. “Oh, boy,” she chanted softly. “Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy.”

 

Troy rose to his feet. “It was a ruse,” he called out. “My campaign was deliberately bad so my employee’s version would be shown in sharper relief.” That was proof that Troy could think fast on his feet, since it had been mere minutes ago that I’d come up with that excuse for his miserable strategy. He headed down the stairs to join the growing crowd on the theater floor. “I hope you don’t think I liked the ideas I pitched to you!”

 

He simpered and dimpled at Dia and I finally heard the voice of Amy in my head, who told me to close my mouth; my jaw was gaping open.

 

Dia stared him down with a haughty grandeur I could only dream of. “That may be so. But we don’t like you. That is all.”

 

Troy blanched visibly. Fira rose from her seat, eyeing Troy with lust in her eye. “I like him. I like him fine.” She purred as she left her seat. I had a vision of a cat stalking a mouse. No woodland fairy here; this was some mythological hunting beast. We might have to change the logo. Tiger ears, perhaps.

 

“Fira!” Matteo barked. “That is an engaged man! He and Anna Maria—you can’t do this to them! They are in love and they work together! Surely we keep them on the same team?”

 

By this time, Tisa and Rubia (Matteo’s wife) were on the floor as well, and engaged in a conversation that moved so fast and overlapped so completely that the translators couldn’t keep up. Not a single person had left the theater. The drama was too exciting. Sunshine was still chanting. “Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!”

 

“I taught Anna Maria everything she knows,” Troy protested, but his words went unheeded.

 

Hah. Not likely.

 

I was frozen in indecision and Troy was assessing each member of the Marinello family. He made his decision and edged around the crowd until he got to me. Then he put his arm around my shoulder and loudly said “Don’t worry, darling. Everything will be okay. I won’t desert you. You’re my girl.”

 

I had no choice but to slip my hand around his waist and look up at him. I saw fury in his eyes, but a tender smile on his lips.

 

Matteo saw the smile, too. He clapped his hands together suddenly, silencing the women grouped around him, and barked out his decision.

 

“Troy, you will continue to focus on the House of Marinello, while Anna Maria and Sunshine take over the—what do we call it, now?”

 

“The Three Jewels.” Dia said it first, but the words echoed around the large room as every other staff member and both of the other teams answered.

 

“Yes. The Three Jewels. I’ll personally tell Nicholson Bradford how sorry I am about you being moved off the account, Troy, and how proud we are to welcome Anna Maria as a partner. With Sunshine, of course.”

 

This time it was Troy’s mouth that was hanging open, and I pinched him viciously so he’d snap out of his astonishment.

 

“There’s no need to contact Nicholson,” he began, but Matteo cut him off.

 

“No, no, it’s the least I can do. He needs to know that I, at least, still repose complete faith in you, and that the girls want an all-woman team. You know how they are.”

 

Since he’d just seen to it that I’d get the promotion I deserved, I smiled at this patriarchal bullshit, but Troy was still unable to mask his distress.

 

Matteo laid a fatherly hand on Troy’s arm. “But I want you to know how proud I am of you and your lovely fiancé for putting together such a clever presentation. I thought it was rude of you to go first, but you were such a gentleman to allow her to take the spotlight. You’re a true man.”

 

Troy had the sense to smile modestly. Matteo glared at his daughters. “That’s why,” he said, his voice heavy with impact, “I insist that Troy and Anna Maria have their wedding at my villa in the country.”

 

My jaw had fallen open again, and Troy’s grip on my shoulder tightened uncomfortably. “I’m sorry?” he said.

 

“Yes, yes! You must marry at my villa! We would be so proud to host you, wouldn’t we, my Rubia?”

 

The famous model’s icy chill faded as she gave us a smile. “What fun! A wedding! When will it be?”

 

Troy looked at me in astonishment. All I could think was that I was going to have to marry that snake. How was I going to get out of this?

 

He shook me, desperation in his eyes, and I answered. “Well, we haven’t set a date yet.”

 

“Come to the villa this weekend,” Rubia said. “We need to discuss so many things! Sunshine, you come too. Casimir, could you please change their plane reservations, and extend their hotel stay? Is that all right?” She turned back to Troy and me.

 

Surely he’d come up with an excuse as to why we had to get back to New York. I could think of a top ten list of things I had to do (not the least of which was celebrate with the team and get enough alone time for Amy to tell me what to do about this wedding), but Troy greeted her words with a hearty smile.

 

“Why, we’d love to visit you! Wouldn’t we, darling?”

 

He looked down at me and I gulped. His fingers tightened on my shoulder and I read his message clearly. “It would be an honor,” I said.

 

“Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy,” chanted Sunshine in delight behind me.

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

 

A. At the villa, Tisa gets Sunshine to model for her as Tisa designs an entirely new collection around the older woman’s tough and lean form.

 

B. At the villa, Rubia insists on hearing the story of how Troy and Anna Maria fell in love.

 

C. At the villa, the entire family of designers decides to hold a wedding gown competition, putting Anna Maria in a “judgement of Paris” bind as to which gown she’s going to have to choose.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE. You have until Sunday evening, July 31 to vote—although please note: I don’t actually write these until Wednesday or Thursday, so feel free to send late votes if you want! I’ll send you the next installment on August 5.

 

 

Recap: Bradford Worldwide won the competition to provide PR for what is now known as “The Three Jewels” campaign for the House of Marinello—but the three designers (daughters of world-famous Matteo Marinello) objected to Troy’s participation. They want the account managed by Anna Maria and her graphic designer, Sunshine. Matteo, horrified at the insult visited upon Troy, has invited Troy, Anna Maria, and Sunshine to the Marinello’s country villa for the weekend to discuss Anna Maria and Troy’s wedding, which he insists on hosting. Anna Maria is caught between Troy’s lie about their (entirely fake) engagement and her longing to manage the Three Jewels account, and must figure out how to balance Troy’s falsehoods with her growing like of the entire Marinello clan.

 

Chapter Thirteen—To The Villa

 

Casimir was the most quietly-efficient man I’d ever worked with. His father and his three half-sisters were peacocks, drawing the eye and the imagination. But I was coming to believe that as rich in talent as the House of Marinello was, none of it would have worked without Casimir capably handling the reins from behind the scenes.

 

I’d come to appreciate his calm nature over the past 36 hours because my American companions were draining my energy at a time when I was trying to concentrate on the account. Sunshine—usually an unflappable presence in my life—had fallen in love with Italy and had abandoned any sense of normality. She was constantly racing off to a different museum or park or opera house or who knows what else, coming back only long enough to get me hyped up and excited, only to leave me again when I needed to get back to work.

 

Troy, on the other hand, was as petulant as a child. He’d stomped between our two rooms over and over again, visiting on me his outrage at being kicked off the account. Frequently he told me what happened at the meeting, even though I’d been there, and used his inability to speak Italian into an excuse to turn me back into his assistant. I’d been to the lobby bar to get coffee so often that I feared for his caffeine intake. In quiet conversations with Winnifred back in New York, I learned that he was making Bradford Worldwide suffer with him, too.

 

What Nicholson Bradford had to say about the situation, I had not been informed.

 

So emails and the occasional phone call with Casimir were a relief. He arranged our revised schedule, changing our plane tickets so we’d return to New York after the weekend at the villa, and told me he’d pick us up from our hotel at two in the afternoon on Friday.

 

I managed to gather together my overexcited companions on time, and Troy, Sunshine, and I were waiting under the hotel’s awning at two that afternoon. But what pulled up to the curb was not just Casimir, but a whole parade.

 

Matteo and Rubia Marinello were the first to arrive, in a dark green vintage Jaguar that looked like a teardrop pushed sideways by excessive speed. Sunshine, at my side, muttered. “XKE. Nice damned car.”

 

“Hello!” Matteo cried from the front seat. “I’ve brought the entire tribe!”

 

Cars pulled up behind him. Dia was driving a creamy white Mercedes convertible, her hair covered in a black scarf like she was Princess Grace of Monaco. Or Sophia Loren.

 

Fira came next in something sporty the color of arterial blood. “Oh, my God,” Troy said, forgetting to keep his voice down. “Alfa Romeo GT6. That’s sex on wheels. A fucking corpse could get laid with that car.”

 

“Do you like it?” Even three cars back, she’d heard him. “I thought it was cute, too. Would you like to drive?”

 

His suitcase forgotten, Troy darted to her. He never said the words “Yes, I would like to drive that dangerously expensive car,” but she didn’t need to hear the words anyway. She laughed as she slithered from the driver’s side and into the passenger’s seat, somehow managing to do it without actually sliding out of the diaphanous gauze gown she wore.

 

A massive black vehicle pulled in behind Fira’s sexmobile, some unknown guy at the wheel. Tisa hung halfway out the passenger window. “Ciao, Luce del Sol!”

 

“That’s you.” I nudged Sunshine, who was staring at the monstrous vehicle open-mouthed.

 

“Luce!” called Tisa. “Daddy won’t let me drive yet because I’m only 17. But if you drove me, then I could get my Land Rover down to the villa where I can practice outside of the city, and Giuseppe, here, could go back to the compound. You’ll drive me, right?”

 

“Holy shit,” Sunshine said. She looked at me. “It’s like a temptation scene. That’s a Land Rover Defender. That’s a real James Bond SUV. I’ve never seen one. You could fit twenty bikes in the back of that thing.”

 

“Go on,” I said, laughing as I nudged her. “I’ll see you at the villa.”

 

I felt no surprise when a final car pulled into the line-up. Casimir was his family’s sheep dog. He kept them in line and in order. He parked, got out, and walked up to me.

 

“I had not intended on driving you to the country with an entourage,” he said with a gentle smile, “but you’ve made quite an impression on my family, and they’ve decided to turn the drive into a race.”

 

“A car race?” I looked doubtfully at the queue of cars. Three of them were snarling sports cars. One was an SUV on very serious steroids. And one was… what was that? Now that I looked past the more showy autos and focused on Casimir’s car, I realized I’d never seen anything like it. It had a quietly impressive front grill—like a Duke would be driving it. Or would be chauffeured in it.

 

“Don’t worry,” he said. “They very rarely crash. This is Troy’s suitcase?”

 

He took Troy’s handle and slipped my duffle bag off my shoulder and onto his.

 

“Crash?” I was parroting him like a fool.

 

“Just a little joke. It will be fine. They’re a competitive bunch. Troy won’t be driving with us?” We were walking down the line of cars and passed Troy, who was lovingly stroking the steering wheel of the erotica car.

 

“We’ve lost Troy and Sunshine, I’m afraid.” Sunshine was adjusting seat and mirrors in the snarling black SUV. Tisa was beside her, reading gauges to her in Italian. Guiseppe was already walking away, no doubt back to preside over whatever garage kingdom he came from in “the compound.”

 

“That’s fine,” Casimir said. He stowed our luggage in the trunk of his conveyance. “I’ve got room for all three of you, but we’ll do fine at the back of the pack. I bring up the rear, to stop for flat tires or fender benders of whatever my family gets into.”

 

He opened the door for me and sat me in the navigator’s seat of a vintage sedan.

 

“What kind of car is this?” I asked once he was seated. Engines in a long line fired up once Casimir was in, and the cavalcade of expensive cars pulled out carelessly into Milan traffic.

 

“This is a Lancia Aurelia B12 saloon from 1954,” he said. “The pinnacle of that period. A touring car from the days before autostradas. I like its subtle refinement, that it’s  elegantly homely.”

 

“Not homely,” I said. “Impressive. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a car like this one.” The paint, I decided, wasn’t black after all—it was an intensely deep purple. Like an eggplant. A luxurious, understated, wildly talented eggplant.

 

“She’s a rare treasure,” he said fondly, reaching out to pat the dashboard. “I named her Jennifer, after a dear friend who helped me find it.”

 

“It’s lovely—oh my God!” We’d reached the highway, and Casimir had entered smoothly into traffic in time for me to see the green Jaguar and the white Mercedes suddenly whip out into the flow of traffic, changing lanes and accelerating to alarming speeds. Just moments later, the ruby-colored Alfa followed.

 

“Not to worry. There are no speed limits on the Autostrada,” Casimir assured me. I wasn’t terribly reassured. “Now the competition begins.”

 

I hadn’t been to mass in years, and yet still somehow the urge to cross myself was overwhelming. Now the massive black Land Rover was making its move.

 

“Ah,” said Casimir. “Tisa is the baby of the family, but she hates to lose.”

 

“Yes, but Sunshine is driving,” I said weakly.

 

“Sunshine is the downhill mountain biker, yes? Perhaps that made you think she would not be competitive herself?”

 

“Oh, dear.”

 

He chuckled. “The Marinellos are a lot to take in. I understand. Would you like me to keep up with them? Jennifer can do it, I assure you. She’s a dream to drive.”

 

“God, no!” I gripped the dashboard in front of me. I had a driver’s license and I occasionally drove my mother’s Volvo when I went home to New Jersey to visit, but I was a city girl. I ride the subway—not the highway. We were already going fast enough.

 

“That’s fine,” he said. “I like to be last, so I can solve any problems that come up.”

 

He was so capable, so calm, that I relaxed my death grip and looked at him. “You don’t mind? I mean, you’ve got Marinello blood in you, too.”

 

He grinned, the expression making him look younger. “I’m not saying I couldn’t beat them all. But my sisters hate to lose. It’s better for family harmony if someone else comes in last.”

 

I raised an eyebrow. “And they don’t mind beating someone who isn’t even trying?”

 

He laughed. “Who says I’m not trying?”

 

He was moving with the traffic and then made a deft move when a farm truck suddenly and illogically decided to switch lanes. He was a far better driver than he was letting on.

 

“Uh-huh,” I said sarcastically. “I see. It’s your job to keep your light under a bushel, huh?”

 

The phrase didn’t translate and we had a brief conversational aside while I clarified that he was hiding his own talents for reasons of his own.

 

“But the lights under those other bushels shine so beautifully. Why should I try to outshine them?” he said.

 

I shrugged. Because you’re a pretty great guy. Because you deserve to be admired, too. Because it seems like you generally sacrifice for you family. “I don’t know.”

 

“If this level of competitiveness makes you uneasy, then you’re not going to like the decision made this morning.” He watched me without looking away from the road.

 

“What decision?” I felt a spear-thrust of panic. I wasn’t going to lose the account, was I? Did they want Troy back instead of me?

 

“I’ll let them explain. But don’t frown so—not when your smile is so pretty. This is a good thing, I promise you.”

 

His reassurances did little to soothe my unease (although I flushed with pleasure when he said I had a pretty smile). He would give no further explanation, and spent the rest of the trip distracting me with funny stories about the surrounding countryside, or asking me about my team in New York City, my family at home.

 

It took a little over an hour to reach the villa, and we passed no wrecks or dead bodies or stranded motorists along the way. The Marinello country home was a stunning Palladian villa—a perfectly symmetrical palace bordered by tall, thin trees that marched in pairs down the long driveway. Vineyards stretched across the rolling hills.

 

I gasped when I saw it. “It’s stunning!”

 

Casimir nodded. “My father has always had an eye for beauty. Come—they’ll be on the terrace. You shall have a glass of wine.”

 

He smiled at the man who came to take our bags and greeted the three rough-coated dogs who came, wagging, to shed on his jeans. Casimir introduced me to the man (Mauro) and the dogs, Ispida, the mother—her name meant “Wiry”—and her two children, Giocoso and Testarda (their names meant “Playful” and “Stubborn”).

 

I had a few moments of pure joy, meeting three spirits that had no interest in tripping me up in a lie or a half-truth. Yay! That pleasing greeting over, Casimir led me and the dogs along the cool, barrel-vaulted main hallway and through French doors to a broad terrace.

 

“Last man home!” Tisa cried happily. “You have to comb the dogs!”

 

“I always comb the dogs,” Casimir said evenly. He sat me in a low armchair next to Troy, who was already flush with wine.

 

“You guys took forever!” he said. “Fira and I would have won if it hadn’t been for that cow!”

 

Was I supposed to kiss Troy in greeting? No one seemed to mind that I didn’t. I took the glass of red wine from a uniformed woman and sat back. “Who won?”

 

The question elicited screams of protest. Dia had arrived by the estate’s back entrance just as her father pulled up at the front, and they were still arguing about who had won.

 

“Didn’t I tell you?” Casimir fondled Ispida’s ears as he sat on the low wall at the edge of the terrace. “They’re a competitive group.”

 

“Yes!” Tisa sat up straight. She and Sunshine had their heads together on a low sofa, but she took the conversational bull by the horns now. “Tell Anna Maria about the competition, Daddy!”

 

Oh, here we go.

 

“Anna Maria, the designers of the House of Marinello like you very much.” I smiled my thanks, but my input was not yet called for, apparently. Matteo went on. “We were fighting this morning about which of us would design your wedding dress.”

 

My wedding dress.

 

For my wedding.

 

To Troy.

 

Jesus God. Mother Mary pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

 

“—oh,” I said. “Oh, my.” Troy and Sunshine were also in a frozen state. “I couldn’t accept, really.” I had a flash of inspiration. “I’m actually going to wear my mother’s wedding dress.”

 

It had to have come from imaginary Amy, my spirit guide. Brilliant. That should shut them down.

 

“Didn’t you just tell me your parents eloped?” Of all people, it was Casimir who unwittingly dealt me the killing blow.

 

“Oh, that won’t do,” Dia said firmly. “Anna Maria, you deserve a special dress on your wedding day—a dress that will define your past and establish your future. I shall design you such a dress.”

 

“No,” Fira said, but she was overridden by Tisa. “I’m going to design it,” the younger sister said.

 

Matteo held up an imperious hand. “This is exactly what happened this morning,” he said. “And so we have decided. We are each of us going to design a wedding dress for you. And you will choose which one to wear.”

 

My eyebrows were in my hairline. “Oh, no. Absolutely not. How could I choose between four such talented designers?”

 

“Five,” corrected Matteo. He looked at Casimir. “You will design one, too.”

 

“Father,” Casimir protested. “I don’t design anymore. You know that.”

 

“I know you’ve turned your back on your gift. I know you still see beauty. I’ve seen your idle sketches. You deny who you are, Casimir, and I won’t have it. I insist.”

 

I shot a look of triumph at Casimir. There was no way to convey all the things I was thinking.

 

You killed off the best way I had to get out of this, I thought.

 

If I have to get sucked into this, so do you, I thought.

 

You do hide your light under a bushel, I thought.

 

You’re a designer, too? You don’t just run the company—you got your father’s gift for fashion and design? How could you ignore that? I thought.

 

Troy had a hand on my arm. “What an incredible honor. Right, sweetie? We accept. Gladly. Thank you!”

 

I attempted a smile that felt more like a rictus of pain. “Yes—thank you.”

 

“Very well, then. It’s decided. Now. We need to spend the weekend getting to know you and hearing about the wedding you’ve planned.” Rubia, silent until this point, became the consummate hostess. “Let’s start by hearing how you two fell in love!”

 

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

 

A. Anna Maria finds a way to be alone long enough for Amy to advise her on how to get out of this mess.

 

B. Troy spins a wild tale of how he fell in love with Anna Maria; in retaliation, Anna Maria outlines her goals for the plainest, simplest wedding she can think of.

 

C. Anna Maria helps Casimir groom the dogs and divulges more about her insecurities than she ought to have.

 

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE. You have until Sunday evening, August 7 to vote—although please note: I don’t actually write these until Wednesday or Thursday, so feel free to send late votes if you want! I’ll send you the next installment on August 12.

Chapter Fourteen: True Lies

"We can’t design wedding dresses for the competition," Matteo said grandly, "if we don’t know who you are—who you both are. My lovely bride is right." He smiled fondly at Rubia, tucked into his side on the wrought iron love seat. "We need to know your love story. Tell us how you fell in love. Anna Maria, you start."

The late afternoon sunlight was golden as it sifted down over the terrace, but dark thunderclouds would have suited my mood better. 

Troy hitched his chair closer to mine and fixed a large smile on his face. "Yes, darling—tell them about why you love me so."

He sat there exuding smugness. Didn’t he realize he was going to have to lie, too? My dislike boiled over into a flash of actual hatred. He’d gotten me into this mess and now he expected me to lie again, deepening the deception. And four talented designers—five if Casimir really was going to design a gown for me—were going to invest their time and creative energies into making a wedding dress for me that I didn’t deserve and was never going to wear.

"Why I love you?" I said, stalling for time. Where was Amy? "Well, um, you’re so handsome. And, um, smart."

That was true as far as it went. I left out that he had the morals of a snake oil salesman. But Rubia and her daughters were not satisfied with such a lackluster response. 

"Come now—you can do better than that," Rubia insisted.

From his seat on the retaining wall, Casimir spoke. "Perhaps Anna Maria would rather not share such personal details," he said. My hero.

"Don’t be silly," Dia said. "She’s not shy. Not the woman who decided our symbols with such style." The oldest daughter ran a finger along her canine teeth with a wicked grin. I’d personalized her logo with a pair of vampire fangs and she liked it.

"These things are private." Casimir was not deterred, and I mentally dressed him in shining armor. Noble Sir Knight!

"Well, Troy isn’t shy, are you, Troy?" Rubia unfolded from her seat next to Matteo and sat, instead, on the low table next to Troy’s chair. She took his hand and caught his eye. "You, I know, are not shy. You’ll tell me, won’t you?"

The spotlight of attention had swung from me to Troy and I was shedding heat from every pore in gratitude. Troy no longer looked smug, but it was hard to enjoy his time on the hot seat when the lies he was surely about to spout were going to suck me even deeper into this tar pit of untruths.

"Well," Troy blustered, "as you can see, Anna Maria is lovely."

He shot a glance at me as if he’d never actually looked at me before (he probably hadn’t), but Rubia put her other hand on his shoulder.

"Nonsense, caro. Close your eyes." Her English was good enough that I didn’t need to whisper translations to Troy (or to Sunshine, sitting with Tisa like she was watching a soap opera). "I insist. Close them. Close those big blue eyes. That’s right. Now take a deep breath. And another one."

Troy had been removed from the Three Jewels account but he still handled Matteo’s business. If Matteo’s wife wanted Troy to breathe deeply with eyes closed, then Troy would do it.

Rubia’s voice dropped to a low croon. "That’s fine. Now think back, my beauty. Think of the day. One moment, she was just another person. And then—magic! She was theperson. The special one. The one you knew you couldn’t live without. Remember that day?"

Troy’s forehead was creased in concentration. I was strung taut like a bowstring, waiting to see what he was going to make up next. "I do. I remember that day."

"And where were you? A romantic dinner? A horse-drawn carriage?"

Rubia didn’t know Troy’s dating history if she thought he might have fallen in love with me in a romantic scenario.

"Nicholson’s office," Troy breathed. A place where I had been exactly once, to learn that if I actually had to marry Troy to pull off this deception, Nicholson Bradford promised to pay for the divorce. I suppressed a shudder at the memory.

"Tell me," Rubia crooned. "You’re in the office. Then what happened?"

"She came in." Troy’s forehead had smoothed out. "The meeting had been going badly. Nicholson didn’t like my ideas. And then she came in." Whatever lie he was spinning, I hadn’t been there. 

"What happened when she came in? No, keep your eyes closed. Tell me."

Troy inhaled deeply. "I caught her perfume first. It was…I don’t know. Dark and tempting. Sexy."

I tended to wear light citrus scents, when I wore perfume at all—which I never did in the office.

"Ah—you scented her before you saw her. Like a predator." Rubia liked it.

"Then I felt her hand on my shoulder. Just the lightest touch. She leaned over and looked at the design strategy in my hand. ‘That’s cool,’ she said. I remember the words. She said my idea was cool. Her hair brushing against my cheek. And Nicholson frowned and then picked up his copy again. And he looked at it and threw it down and told me what the hell, and it turned out to be a great campaign. Because of her."

He opened his eyes like a man awakening from a dream. Whoever he’d been talking about, it sure as hell wasn’t me. "And that’s when I knew. I just knew. She was the one."

Rubia stood with a delighted laugh. "You have the heart of a romantic, Troy—I knew it! Do you see, Anna Maria? Some people will share!"

She danced back to Matteo who kissed her. I raised my eyebrows and offered the best smile I could manage under the circumstances. 

"So," Dia said, summing up the findings, "Anna Maria is dark and tempting and sexy. Confident. She has a very keen eye. This gives me ideas, I must say."

"Me, too," Fira said, and Tisa nodded. 

Great. Now they were going to design wedding dresses for me that didn’t fit my personality and which I would never wear. This just kept getting better and better.

"I wonder if I might freshen up?" I asked. Leaving the terrace while Troy was making up lies was dangerous; I didn’t want to be caught unawares if he announced that he and I were raising Siamese cats together, or something—but I’d have to take the risk. At the least, I needed a moment of quiet to think. 

At best, I was in urgent need of my spirit guide, who would only talk to me when I was alone. 

"Of course, my dear—let me show you all to your rooms." Rubia was a gracious hostess. She led us into the house. Sunshine’s room was down the hall from mine, and Rubia showed us the connecting door between my room and Troy’s. 

"We won’t ask if the door is opened or closed," she said coyly. 

"Charming," I replied woodenly. 

"We’ll have drinks on the terrace before dinner. Come down when you’re ready, but we’ll gather at seven. Please call the housekeeper if you need anything—her extension is right here." She got us settled and left us alone. Troy opened his mouth to say something (I had a moment of rage at the thought that he was going to tell me to get him coffee) but I held up my hand. "Knock on my door in half an hour. Half an hour, no sooner. I’m not kidding. I need time."

"We need to make a plan," he said as I pushed him out. I closed the door firmly behind him. Now he thinks we need to plan??

I didn’t even have to call for her. Amy was standing by the tall windows, looking out over the grapevines stretching in their tidy rows across the contours of the hills. "This place is a lot like heaven."

That stopped my waterfall of questions. "Heaven is like this?"

"What? Oh." She turned back to me. "I don’t actually know. If there’s a heaven, I haven’t seen it yet. Maybe that’s the next step."

Fine. She had nothing useful to impart about the afterlife. Let’s get down to business. "You’re my spirit guide. Tell me what the hell I should do, here!"

Amy seated herself on the sofa and ran her hands over the brocade in approval. "This guest room is perfection. I bet those sheets will feel like suede. Soft, supple, million-thread-count suede. You’re going to sleep like the happiest baby."

"Amy!"

"All right. I’ll tell you one thing: I rarely ever even see Troy’s spirit guide. Poor guy is mostly a ghost, faded into nothing from being ignored for so long—but Troy started telling that love story and the spirit guide faded back in. His name’s Beric, by the way, and he was thrilled to be real enough to talk to me."

"Beric? What kind of name is Beric? No, never mind—what did he tell you?"

"He said that Troy is hopelessly in love with someone named  MacKenzie."

"What?" I was staggered. "The receptionist on the seventy-third floor??" MacKenzie was gorgeous, without a a doubt, but so were all the women Troy dated. What made her so special?

"I guess. That’s what Beric said. Troy’s so smitten he can’t even ask her out. Apparently that’s why he dates so many other women."

"Troy is… is smitten?" I was flummoxed. There was no heart inside Troy’s over-muscled chest…was there? "He sends orchids to women he breaks up with. I mean, I send orchids to women he breaks up with. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself."

"I’m just telling you what I know. He loves himself, and he loves MacKenzie. Beric says Troy applies all the swagger he can muster when he sees her, but it does no good. He just pines for her."

I shook my head. Troy was carrying a torch. Had unrequited love. Was a human after all.

"I don’t care," I insisted. "I need to know how to get out of this mess. What should I do, Amy? I want to tell the Marinellos the truth. Should I tell them the truth? Tell me. Tell me!"

"Calm down! Sit. Let’s think about this. Look—there’s ice in this bucket. The staff here doesn’t miss a trick. Pour yourself a soda water. Sit still. Let me think for a moment. In fact—sit in silence. I’ll be back."

"Where are you going?" I would have clutched at her if I could have touched her.

"Just give me a few minutes. I’ll do a little survey of my people and get back to you."

Her people. Amy had told me that everyone has a spirit guide, but most people can’t hear them. That meant all the Marinellos had spirit guides, too. "Go!" I urged her. "Find out what I should do!"

"Back before you finish that drink. Do not add the vodka. I see you looking. Don’t do it. You had that wine on the terrace, and if you ever needed a clear head, it would be for tonight. No drinking, okay?"

Shit. Amy was tough.

I practiced deep breathing until she returned. "Any luck?" I asked, desperate for some kind of resolution.

"Yes, lots." Amy sat herself on the sofa again, broadcasting ‘contentment’ with her manner.

"Spit it out!"

"Well, first, Tisa isn’t gay."

"What? Why do I care about that?"

"Silly. She’s totally fixated on Sunshine, and that wouldn’t be right."

"Amy—you’re a prude?"

"Don’t be absurd. Tisa is seventeen and Sunshine is fifty-two. Male, female, anywhere on the rheostat in between—that kind of age gap is inappropriate. But it doesn’t matter. Tisa likes the menfolk. She’s just fascinated by Sunshine’s style and leanness and the way she moves."

"Tremendous. What about my situation?"

"All right. Well, none of the daughters can stand Troy."

"Because of the presentation."

"No, this seems to be of longer standing than that. Apparently the last time he was in Milan to work with Matteo, he made a pass at Dia. She wasn’t amused."

I shook my head. What a pig.

"But that was just the beginning," Amy went on. "They don’t like his design sense. They think his work for the House of Marinello is dated and boring."

"Well… they’re kind of right."

"So they don’t like him. But they do like you. Dia’s spirit guide says they’re wondering what you see in him, because they’ve decided you’re a keeper."

"Oh, that’s so nice to hear!" My comment was more of a wail. I felt a blanket of guilt smother me at the thought that these wonderful people were liking me when I was lying to them so nastily.

"And I spent the most time with Casimir’s spirit guide—Antonio." Amy sighed as she said his name and I shot her a look.

"Antonio?" I clarified.

"Oh, he’s…mm." Amy had commented before on how handsome Casimir’s spirit guide was. I needed this now? My spirit guide had a crush when I needed her most?

"Let’s focus, shall we? And what did Antonio say?"

Amy bit back a prim little smile. She’d been flirting; the signs were all there. If I hadn’t been so worked up, I’d have been happy for her. "Well, he says Casimir is suspicious of the whole thing."

I drew back. "Suspicious?!" Was it worse that I was lying to people I liked? Or was it worse that my lies might be exposed?

"Yes—he doesn’t like Troy, either. Apparently Troy’s been padding his invoices and Casimir is watching him very carefully. He suspects Troy isn’t honest, and that Bradford Worldwide is endorsing the attempts to overcharge the House of Marinello."

"Oh." I relaxed. Troy did pad his invoices, regularly, which he insisted was an industry standard. That was loathsome, but not as terrifying as Casimir thinking my engagement was faked. "So do I tell the Marinellos the truth, or not?"

Amy laid a perfectly-manicured nail across her lips in thought. "I think you ought to let this play out."

"Amy, I can’t! They’re going to make me wedding dresses!"

"I know that bothers you and I love you for caring, but they’re all planning on using the gown they design for you in next season’s fashions, so it’s not like you’re going to be forcing them to create something they’ll never be able to use."

"You’re sure?"

"Well, Tisa is already planning a huge hood held over your head with a hidden wire frame. Does that sound like she’s designing something specifically to please you?"

"A hood?"

"A hood. More like a canopy. Four feet tall from the shoulders. She’s thinking of installing a small chandelier at the top, to sway gently over your head."

"Holy shit. That’s incredible."

"Would you ever wear something like that? To your wedding?"

Laughter bubbled out of me unbidden. "It seems unlikely."

"So stay calm about that. You’re not imposing. They’re deeply competitive with each other. You’re just today’s excuse."

"And you’re sure they’ll use them in a collection?"

"Down the runway," Amy promised. "Last model down. To thunderous applause, of course."

"Except Casimir," I suddenly realized. "He won’t use his design. He won’t have a collection."

"Hm. Perhaps I should go talk to Antonio about what Casimir wants. And what he needs. Spirit guides always know these things."

I gave up and smiled at her. "Go and talk to Antonio. See what you can find out. Maybe tonight you’ll be able to tell me what I should do next."

"Sweetheart. Of course I will. Now sit quietly and let me see what I can learn."

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

A. Tisa buys two mountain bikes and has Sunshine show her how to ride down rock-filled stream beds without killing themselves; Tisa sprains her ankle and is delighted with this physical evidence of her brio.

B. Troy and Anna Maria attempt to plan the weekend’s lies but find they cannot understand the other’s objections to either deeper lies or stronger truth.

C. The Marinellos and their guests take a stroll together to the nearby scenic river, where the dogs roll in the mud and shake all over the screaming family. Casimir is deputized to clean the dogs off and Anna Maria volunteers to help, since she’s now already hopelessly muddy anyway.

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE. You have until Sunday evening, August 14 to vote—although please note: I don’t actually write these until Wednesday or Thursday, so feel free to send late votes if you want! I’ll send you the next installment on August 19.

Chapter Fifteen: Going to the Dogs

My whispered conversation with Troy the night before had been a failure. We were at cross purposes. I wanted to stop lying to the Marinello family. Troy wanted to ingratiate himself back into the Three Jewels account.

If he succeeded, I would be demoted—back to his personal assistant.

If he failed, it was looking more and more like I would have to marry Troy.

This was a no-win situation for me. But my spirit guide advised me to let events develop, and I had no better ideas. So what else could I do?

The first night, the Marinello family hosted a small gathering of local dignitaries for dinner (all of whom were charming and very lovely) and the following morning had involved sleeping off a lot of alcohol followed by generous pots of coffee and some very high-fat-count butter on crusty loaves of bread. Everything would have been perfect…if only I’d been telling these kind people the truth.

In the afternoon, Casimir announced that he was going to take the dogs for a ramble by the river. Tisa, the youngest daughter, had ordered and received two mountain bikes (I suppose you can do anything if you have enough money) and she and Sunshine were in; they thought the river walk would be a good place to practice falling off their bikes.

(This apparently made sense to both of them.)

Matteo and Rubia decided we should all go for the walk. The entire family looked sensational, making me feel grubby in my good-for-plane-travel leggings and oversized shirt. Rubia, a celebrity model in her day and still Matteo’s muse, was wearing an updated version of a traditional Vietnamese outfit—snowy white duster to her knees in heavy pleated silk swinging over graceful black palazzo pants. She carried a stunning version of a saddle leather messenger bag across her body, which she noted was filled with bandages and disinfectants for her passionate and avant guard daughter, the novice mountain biker. 

We walked along the private road through the vineyards and through the fringe of a lemon orchard to the slow-moving river, green and peaceful under the shade of overhanging trees. Casimir was already below us, throwing sticks into the slow-moving current for his delighted dogs to retrieve.

Rubia linked her arm with mine, Dia at her side, to talk about the wedding. Would I be willing to delay the ceremony until after Milan’s Fashion Week in late September?

I was delighted to stall for as long as she wanted. The vendemmia (or grape harvest), she said, was in September and October at the villa; if we waited until late October, she’d be able to serve the freshest grape pressings to guests. Yes, she decided, that would be perfect. My family would stay at the villa, too, wouldn’t they?

I looked in desperation to Troy, who was talking Matteo’s ear off ahead of us. (This was only possible because Fira, the middle daughter, was on Troy’s arm, translating.) It was bad enough that I might actually have to marry Troy. How would I explain this to my parents?

Fortunately, at that moment Casimir shouted. The two younger dogs spiraled past us, locked in a death grip of playful growls and wagging tails. They were both caked in river mud. Rubia shrieked. Her pure white duster! Without thought I stepped in front of her just as the dogs lost their balance and fell into my knees.

I stepped back, but tripped over the third dog and went down in a graceless rush. Casimir caught me before I slid all the way down the bank and into the river.

Falling is bad enough; to fall under the fascinated gaze of some of the most fashionable people in the world is an exercise in humiliation. I would have leapt to my feet, red faced and embarrassed, but the mud was too thick and I couldn’t get my feet under me. Casimir had to physically pick me up and set me on my feet, by which time the family had gathered, concerned, on the back over me to make sure I was alright. 

"Cara!" Rubia cried. "Are you all right? You poor darling! Casimir, those dogs!"

"I know, Matrigna—I’m so sorry!"

I tried to step away from Casimir but one foot went out from under me and he had to catch me again. This time he held on, and I was grateful. "I’m fine, really. Just embarrassed!!"

"Not at all," he said. "Entirely my fault."

"That’s true, naughty boy." Rubia’s hands were clasped in front of her. "Oh, Anna Maria! You sacrificed yourself for me! My brave darling! My vintage Mary Quant—how can I thank you?"

I laughed and Casimir (now almost as muddy as I was) clambered gracelessly up the bank at my side. The family drew back to give us room. "I didn’t even think," I admitted. "I just knew that pure white garment needed protection!"

"Indeed it did!" Rubia looked down at her ensemble with the reverence of the True Believer. "Your instincts tell me everything I might ever need to know about you, cara mia. From now on, you are a part of this family!"

I laughed in appreciation while smothering my guilt.

The two mountain bikers arrived. Sunshine pulled up neatly from their headlong rush along the river, but headstrong Tisa braked into a showy spin that sent a fantail of mud arching across her entire family.

Screams of outrage followed this assault. Troy was trying to flick mud off his trousers without actually touching anything.

"Tisa! My Mary Quant!"

"Looks better now, mother," she said with a shrug. "Now it’s an abstract. You’re welcome."

"Tisa! You are no longer a part of the family!"

Tisa laughed merrily. Fira, who had protected herself by stepping quickly behind Troy, bit back her own grin, but Dia (in once-immaculate white suede jeans) was lined up next to her mother to shriek at the seventeen-year-old, who couldn’t have cared less.

"Hoo boy," Sunshine muttered to me. "What happened to you? You look dirtier than we do, and we hit some excellent streams!"

"Dogs," Casimir answered for me. "Dogs that I am now going to go hose down before grooming them. My sincere apologies, Anna Maria."

"I suppose you’d better hose me down, too. I can’t go into the house like this!"

"Hrmph," he grunted, turning my head gently to look at my hair. "I think I really will have to hose you down. I’m sorry to tell you there’s quite a lot of mud back here. I’m so very embarrassed."

That made me laugh again. "Good. You be embarrassed for a while so I can take a break. Then I’ll be embarrassed later and you can rest."

That made him throw his head back in laughter. 

Clearly, the walk was over. We moved back toward the villa in distinct clusters. Tisa led us on her bike, followed by sisters and mother, still hurling insults and threats at her indifferent helmet.

Troy and Matteo came next. Troy was trying to talk his way into a new House of Marinello outfit "because of course these pants are ruined now" and Matteo was assuring him they could deliver whatever he wanted within the hour. Troy was such a scam artist.

Sunshine walked her bike next to me and Casimir, who kept his muddy dogs at his side with an impressive hand signal.  She gave me tips on how to get mud out of my hair, and left us with a grin when Casimir stopped at the bank of garages and pulled out a hose. 

"Good luck!" she called as she peddled back to the villa.

"I’m afraid this will be cold," he said.

"Go ahead—I don’t think it can be much worse than all this mud!"

He was gentle with the water and helped me rinse out my long hair.

"So thick," he murmured. "You have a magnificent mane, Anna Maria."

"Yes, I’m so enjoying it right now," I grinned. "When there’s so much to trap a few more pounds of river mud!"

"Lean over—let me get the back."

His long fingers massaged my scalp, and despite the chill of the water I began to relax. The dogs were sprawled on the driveway beside us and the younger girl dog came up, her head down and tail wagging, for pets. Casimir nudged her away by directing a stream of water at her, his thumb now fanning the water to a higher pressure. "Wait your turn, Stubborn."

I chuckled. "Why do you call her Testarda?"

His hands were now tugging lightly on the mass of my hair, wetting it to the tips. His ministrations were working. The water dripping down was beginning to run clear. "Because she is. She’s stubborn."

"Isn’t that kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy?" The phrase didn’t translate correctly and it took us a few minutes to come to an understanding, but at last he responded.

"What would you have me call her instead? To ensure that I don’t fulfill the expectation of stubbornness?"

The mud was out of my hair but I was enjoying his attentions, and he didn’t seem to mind either. "How about determined? Strong-willed? Sure in her convictions?"

We were both laughing at the end, since sicuro nelle sue convinzioni was no-one’s idea of a good dog name.

"And these are better names?" He smiled.

"No one would ever push her around." It came out of me as a more wistful statement than I intended, and his hands paused in my hair.

"Does anyone ever push you around, Anna Maria?"

I tried to keep my mouth from drawing into a frown. I was looking at the pavers anyway, my hands on my knees. He couldn’t see my face. "If they do, it’s my own fault, you know?"

The hose fell to the ground and he lifted my face to him with one finger. "I do not know." He watched me carefully, trying to read me, and I couldn’t think of anything to say. "If someone is pushing you around, it is certainly not your fault. I have three sisters, you know, and I care about them deeply. I’m told I’m a very protective brother. Can I offer you my protection, Anna Maria? Is there someone I could… speak with? On your behalf?"

His question was so sincere—his focus was so complete—that I was suddenly swamped with lust.

Not sexual lust.

(Well, okay—a little sexual lust. Casimir was tall and stood very close to me and smelled like fresh river water and clean male, and I am not a nun.)

But more the lust for protection. For caring. For a partner who would look out for me.
Hair was dripping down either side of my face. My clothes were sodden. I was barefoot in a puddle. I could not have been less appealing, and yet he made me feel as if I was something to be cherished.

Someone who deserved protection.

My lips curved into a smile I couldn’t contain. "You’re really something."

His hand still under my chin moved to cup my cheek and he stepped closer. "Is that a good thing? Or a bad thing?"

He was going to kiss me. I was going to kiss him back. My pulse expanded my ribcage and adrenaline flashed through me. Yes, please.

Then he blinked and stepped back. "I beg your pardon," he said formally.

Fuck. He’d remembered Troy, and my fake engagement, and I’d totally forgotten. And now I was way off balance.

"Oh," I said stupidly, and then "Ah."

He raised his eyebrows—was he agreeing with me?—and bent for the hose. "Ispida, come here."

The mother dog got obediently to her feet and came to where he waited. He began to hose off the mud and I found the shelf of dog shampoos by the hose reel. "I’ll help," I said.

"No, please—you don’t have to."

"I want to. Besides, I’m already soaked. Why wouldn’t I help?"

Ispida took that moment to shake (because of course she did) and we both got caught in the spray. Our laughter broke the awkwardness between us, and we got down to the messy, necessary task of washing three filthy dogs.

"It is easier with two people," he admitted once "Wiry" and her daughter "Stubborn" had been washed and put into their dog run to dry. We were working on "Playful" as our last task.

Lather and rise, lather and rinse, rinse some more. Giocoso’s fur might have been designed specifically to hide mud. Out of the blue, I asked a question I hadn’t even known I’d wanted answered.

"Why are you going to design me a wedding dress? Are you a designer, too?"

He took so long to answer that I feared I’d overstepped, but he did respond eventually.

"Anywhere else, I might be—but in this family? I’m a very good administrator."

He spoke the words without irony or resentment, but I sat back on my heels to look at him, nudging Giocoso away when he took a happy swipe at my face with his long tongue. "Does that mean you want to be a designer? Or you don’t?" His shrug was apparently all the answer he wanted to give, so I went on. "Because I heard your father say you’ve got the gift."

He offered a raised eyebrow, somehow conveying modesty and arrogance in one facile expression. "Well," he said, and then didn’t continue.

"So let me ask you this. Do you like fashion design?"

His teeth chomped together lightly behind closed lips; he was chewing on the question. I gave him a moment. Finally he offered a grudging reply. 

"I like good fashion design." I smiled and waited him out. "I think my father has created some world-changing collections." That was certainly true. "I think my sister Dia is coasting on the dominatrix concept. She should push herself; she’s better than that.  I think my sister Fira is grossly underestimated. She could be the greatest designer of her age. And Tisa is young—but her youth makes her brave. And that’s exciting to see."

His initial reluctance to speak had been forgotten as he went along. His love for his sisters was evident—as was my first hint at a greater appreciation for the fashion world than I had expected.

"And Casimir? What about him? Is he a good designer?"

He ran a strong hand over Giocoso’s spine, skimming off excess water. "Is Casimir a good designer?" He was thinking the question over carefully. "He plays it safe. He’s conservative. Doesn’t want to make a scene or cause a fuss. So he may be a good designer. But he isn’t great."

He stopped speaking, but it didn’t feel like he was finished. So I completed the thought for him.

"Not a great designer yet."

He inhaled slowly and then kissed his dog, standing, and took him to the dog run. 

"All right," he said, turning back to me. "Not a great designer yet." Then he shrugged. "Who knows?"

I thought maybe I knew. The question was—what do to about it?

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

A. The weekend over, Troy, Anna Maria, and Sunshine head back to New York to brief Nicholson on the Marinello situation. Nicholson has some startling suggestions about who can stand in for Anna Maria’s parents at the wedding.

B. Anna Maria convenes her Girl Trust at the Below Street Level bar so Sunshine, Winnifred, and Monique can help her figure out how truth and justice can beat out con men and connivery.

C. Alone at last: Sitting in her apartment, Anna Maria and Amy work out what they need to do next. Anna Maria admits to feeling for Casimir and Amy admits to feelings for Casimir’s spirit guide, Antonio.

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE. You have until Sunday evening, August 21 to vote. I leave on my Peru trip on the 25th, so I’ll write this on Wednesday (the 24th) and set it up for an automatic send on Friday. 

Chapter Sixteen—Tequila

I imagine people in hostage situations look at their rescuers the same way I saw my team, grouped as they were at a corner of the bar at the Below Street Level. My own version of Seal Team Six looked up and smiled when I finally made it to this haven.

"Milt," I gasped as I pulled up a bar stool. "I need a drink stat. Do you have any tequila that doesn’t taste like lighter fluid?"

"All tequila tastes like lighter fluid. You want a sipping tequila, huh? Well, this is probably the least offensive."

I shot the glass he put in front of me as my team looked on, astonished. Fire slammed through my sinuses and my throat muscles were briefly paralyzed. "That’s better. Thanks," I gasped.

"Another?"

"In a minute. Water, please."

Winnifred broke first. "What happened? You were locked in that meeting for hours!"

I’d escaped Nicholson Bradford’s offices on the 73rd floor in a state of panic. "I’m screwed," I said simply.

"No, you’re not." Monique Selensky was the personal director at Bradford Worldwide (and, I’d learned, a silent co-owner), and her severely-tailored formality helped me regain a little calm. "We’ll work it out. What did Nicholson say about the wedding?"

Doom washed over me. "He says we need to go through with it. We can’t expose the lie now."

Monique sat back, clucking her tongue. "It’s as if he wants you to sue him."

I shook my head. "He has no idea that anyone would object to this painful lie. He loves the plan. He and Troy are gloating over what they can get out of this. And listen to this." I put my hand on Sunshine’s arm; she was the closest to me. "He wants to stand in as the father of the bride." 

Sunshine shouted her laughter. Winnifred had her hands over her opened mouth. And Monique had somehow gotten even taller, her tidy double-breasted suit showing not a single wrinkle. "He wants to be your father?" Even her voice was frowning.

"I had to remind him that he’s met Matteo, on multiple occasions. He couldn’t be my father or Troy’s father. But he’s just aching to attend."

"Lord save us all," Monique said. 

Milt the bartender stood at our corner of the bar, his hands braced on the wood. "This is the wedding in Italy?"

"What?" I cried, "Even Milt knows?"

"Hey. You’d be surprised at what I know. And the secrets I can keep." Milt was affronted. Get in line. We’re all affronted. "I’ll be your dad, Anna Maria. If I can get a trip to Italy out of it."

"Oh my God." Could my life get any more complicated?

"I can be team Anna Maria," he said. "Another martini, Miz Selensky?"

"You’d better get her one," I advised. "Guess who Nicholson thinks should stand in for my mother?"

Monique stared at me and then downed the rest of her drink. She handed the glass to Milt. "Milton, I think I’d better have another one. Sweetie."

Milt barked a laugh and kept his attention on us as he mixed her cocktail.

"What the hell am I going to do?" I wailed. "Those people are so nice! I don’t want to lie to them. And God knows, I don’t want to marry Troy!"

Sunshine agreed. "They’re pips, the whole mass of them. That Tisa—you know, she’s designing a whole mountain biking collection? She says there’s going to be evening gowns and everything." Sunshine stuck out her foot and we all looked at it. "Combat boots. The whole thing is based on muscles and combat boots. And I’m supposed to go to the premier. Black tie. It’s going to be the first time I won’t be furious that I have to dress up."

She was amused. Amazed. Astonished. And we all were right there with her…but that didn’t solve my problem.

"They’re all designing wedding gowns for me to consider," I said. "Matteo fucking Marinello is designing a wedding gown. For me."

My hands fell helpless to the bar in front of me. The pressure of possibly the world’s most famous designer creating a dress—a wedding dress—for someone who was lying to him…my skin was crawling. "Tequila," I barked to Milt, who had the bottle ready to pour.

"Now, sip that," he said, suddenly concerned for me.

Like he was my father.

Oh my God.

"Not just Matteo Marinello," Sunshine reminded me. "Tisa and Fira and that uptight Dia—they’re making you gowns, too, and so is that guy who can’t stop staring at you. The brother."

"He can’t stop staring?" Winnifred was wide-eyed.

"That would be Casimir?" Monique clarified. "Half-brother, I believe? Different mother?"

I nodded. "Yeah. But he doesn’t stare at me." I might stare at him, but he didn’t stare at me.

"Yes he does," Sunshine said, her perfect confidence upsetting me.

"He would not," I insisted, "because he believes I am engaged. Engagedto Troy." I banged my head on the bar.

Monique sensibly moved a stack of cocktail napkins under my forehead. "Stop that. Sit up. Let’s figure this out. What are your options?"

Her call to rational behavior was a pool noodle thrown to a drowning woman. It wasn’t going to save the day, but at least it was something to clutch on my way down.

"I can tell them the truth," I said. "In which case they will immediately fire Bradford Worldwide from all aspects of the House of Marinello because they will see us as being completely without morals. Which is an accurate assessment."

"And you’ll lose your job." Winnifred gulped as she spoke.

"Yes. That’s true. And no hope of a good letter of recommendation, that’s for sure. I’d be dead in the industry."

Monique pursed her lips but could not disagree.

"Or," I went on, "I can continue this farce and marry Troy. Let five designers compete to design my wedding dress. Go through the sham of a marriage in Italy, surrounded by my maid of honor and bridesmaid." I looked at Sunshine and then Winnifred. "And my mother and father." My father chortled in delight and eyed Monique; she looked prim. "And then I divorce Troy as soon as we get back in the states. Keep my job. Live with the lie forever."

"And then you sue Bradford Worldwide for extreme employee abuse," Monique said. "For every penny they’ve got."

I shrugged, helpless. "Then I’d be out of a job again. And you’re a co-owner, so you’d be wrecked, too. Christ. This is a mess." I scrubbed my fingers through my hair, feeling the ghost of Casimir’s hands gently rinsing mud from my scalp. That was a lifetime ago.

The four of us (five, including "Dad") sat in silence. It was Sunshine who broke that moment of despairing calm.

"You’re making a pretty big assumption," she said.

I turned to look at her with a sigh. "What’s that?"

"Well, you’re assuming Troy won’t be the one to screw this up."

I blinked. "Say what, now?"

"Well." She sucked on her teeth for a minute and then gathered her thoughts. "All four of us know Troy’s a pig, right?"

We nodded. Winnifred, now Troy’s personal assistant, winced as she did it. "That’s right."

"So who’s to say he’ll be able to keep up the loving fiancé act until the wedding? I’m thinking this whole thing might implode without any of it getting on you."

Milt leaned forward. "If it implodes, does that mean me and the missus don’t get to to Italy?"

"Stop, Milton," Monique said. "Sunshine may have a point. Perhaps our best course of action is to wait and see what happens."

Which was, I realized, exactly what my spirit guide Amy had advised me to do. 

I studied my team with a new intensity. What would they think if they knew about spirit guides? If they knew that Amy was advising me—and gathering intelligence from the spirit guides of those involved in this tawdry affair?

Would my team believe me? Or would they think I was crazy? 

Would it help if they were to know?

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

Our first-ever yes/no vote! I’ve asked a few readers and the votes are inconclusive—so please weigh in:

YES, Anna Maria should tell her team about Amy and risk them thinking she’s hallucinating.

NO, Anna Maria should keep Amy’s intel a secret, ensuring her team continues to regard her as sane.

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE. You have until Sunday evening, August 28 to vote. 

Recap: Anna Maria is trapped in an uneasy situation. If she perpetuates the lie, then she must pretend to be engaged to her former boss, Troy (who is a snake) and (if she doesn’t chicken out first) will marry Troy in October at the magnificent villa of world-renowned fashion designer Matteo Marinello. However, she’ll be able to keep her new position at Bradford Worldwide as an account executive in charge of the Three Jewels account. (The Three Jewels are the three daughters of Matteo—gifted fashion designers in their own right.)

If Anna Maria confesses to the Marinellos that her engagement to Troy is a lie created by Troy because he hoped to land the Three Jewels account, then Matteo will fire Bradford Worldwide—not only from the Three Jewels account but also from the House of Marinello account. Anna Maria will lose her job and all credibility in the marketing and public relations industry. She will, however, have her integrity…and possibly a chance to pursue a relationship with Casimir Marinello—with whom she’s had A Moment.

What’s a girl to do? Anna Maria’s spirit guide, Amy, has advised her to let this play out. Interestingly, Anna Maria’s team at Bradford Worldwide (Sunshine, the clever graphic designer, Winnie, Troy’s new personal assistant, and Monique Selensky—head of Human Resources and silent parter at Bradford Worldwide) have also advised her to stay the course. Let the false engagement continue (and the competition for five Marinellos to design Anna Maria’s wedding dress) and trust to Troy’s utter lack of decency to bring the lie crashing to the ground before Anna Maria has to marry him. 

Chapter Seventeen: Messages

To: TDonovan@BradfordWorldwide
From: AMCapelli@BradfordWorldwide


Troy, I just got an email from Leo, one of the accountants at the House of Marinello. He says we’ve double-billed for our airfare. Did you put the plane tickets for you, me, and Sunshine on the House of Marinello account? Since it was for the pitch for the Three Jewels, I thought it ought to go on my team’s expense report.  Was that wrong?


To: AMCapelli@BradfordWorldwide
From: TDonovan@BradfordWorldwide


Ignore it. They’ll pay.


To: TDonovan@BradfordWorldwide
From: AMCapelli@BradfordWorldwide


I don’t think they’re going to pay for the same tickets twice, Troy. 


To: AMCapelli@BradfordWorldwide
From: TDonovan@BradfordWorldwide


Kitten, you’ve been an account executive for three minutes. Stand down. This is the way business works. Trust me. They’ll pay. Just shut up about it. Also, I’m running out of shirts. When does my dry cleaning get delivered?


To: Leonardo@HouseofMarinello
CC: Casimir@HouseofMarinello
From: AnnaMariaC@BradfordWorldwide


Leo, I’ve checked with Troy and I apologize—I put the tickets to Milan on my expense report when they should have gone on Troy’s expense report. Please excuse this error! I’m attaching the revised expense sheet with the tickets removed. You can reimburse Troy’s account and we’ll work it out internally here. Thank you for catching this mistake.


To: Leonardo@HouseofMarinello
CC: AnnaMariaC@BradfordWorldwide
From: Casimir@HouseofMarinello


Leo, disregard the revised expense report from Anna Maria. The airfare for Troy, Anna Maria, and Sunshine is to be paid out of the Three Jewels account. DO NOT reimburse Bradford Worldwide for the cost of tickets through the House of Marinello account. This error is Troy’s, not Anna Maria’s. I will take it up with him myself.


To: AnnaMariaC@BradfordWorldwide
From: Casimir@HouseofMarinello


Thank you for attempting to cover for your colleague, but I think you know that the cost of airfare should be applied to your work—not to Troy’s. 

I’m sure this was a simple mistake and is easily remedied. But it has not escaped my notice that messages to me in Italian come from the "AnnaMariaC" email address while messages in English to which Troy is copied come from the "AMCapelli" email address. It is interesting to me that you have two email addresses—and that one of them seems to be more candid than the other.

You overlooked my offer of protection, which I understand. In retrospect, I’m embarrassed by an offer that now seems painfully arrogant. You’ve proven yourself to be capable and smart and are clearly attempting to behave fairly and equitably. I admire that. I want you to know you have my trust. If I can be of any assistance to you, I hope you will not hesitate to turn to me.


To: Casimir@HouseofMarinello
From: AnnaMariaC@BradfordWorldwide


I’ve stared at a blank screen for far too long, trying to figure out how to respond to your lovely message. I haven’t found a way to say anything gracefully, so I’ll just say it plainly:

Your offer of protection was not arrogant. It meant a great deal to me. Probably more than it should have. 

As for my attempt to behave fairly and equitably…Do you ever have that little voice in the back of your head? I don’t know—a conscience, perhaps? A better angel? A spirit guide? Is there a voice in YOUR head that tries to help you do the right thing? I’ve been hearing mine more clearly of late. What it’s telling me is that I have not lived up to anyone’s idea of fair or equitable behavior…but my spirit guide and I can’t figure out how to correct what’s wrong.

It’s twenty to midnight in New York City and even Sunshine has gone home. There’s no one here to stop me from pushing "send" on such a weak message. Tomorrow I will be upright, professional, and painfully attuned to detail, all in service to the Three Jewels. Promise!


To: AnnaMariaC@BradfordWorldwide
From: Casimir@gmail


I’m just back from an early morning run. It’s gray and rainy here in Milan and the streets are only now waking up to the morning rush. Car headlights shine off the slick roadways, and the scent of ancient stone buildings freshens in the mist. I hope you’ve gone to your rest. Don’t work yourself to death for the Three Jewels, or the House of Marinello. We will absorb all of your energies if you let us. Don’t let us.

I do hear that quiet voice you mentioned. Sometimes more plainly than others. (Often most clearly when I’m running. Away from work, from duties, from the importance of caring for my family.) My voice is telling me that you’re in a tight spot. I’ve been there. I’ll help you if I can.

In my experience (and I believe I’m older than you) (arrogant and pompous again; sorry), when I find myself in a tight spot—when all my options are bad ones—there has always been something beyond my control that is making things harder than they should be. Something…or someone. You can’t be expected to control those rogue elements. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

And now I wish there was someone here to advise ME not to hit "send," for surely you will think I’m overstepping. Or just plain crazy. But I’ve consulted my inner voice, and it says "Invialo!" So I’m sending this. 

Sleep well, Anna Maria.


To: Casimir@gmail
From: ShoeJunkie@gmail


Good morning!

It has not escaped MY notice that you, too, have two email addresses! My spirit guide and I cheered when we read your message about hearing YOUR inner voice. We’ve discussed it, and we like the way you think.

I’m going to do everything I can to be worthy of your trust, Casimir. Thank you for understanding that I’m not always in control of…um…well, things that might be not so honorable, sort of.


To: ShoeJunkie@gmail
From: Casimir@gmail


Your third email address raises my eyebrows. Shoe junkie? That’s alarming. Were you aware that the House of Marinello is planning on launching a footwear line in the next two years?

My inner voice and I like the way you think, too.


To: AMCapelli@BradfordWorldwide
CC: TDonovan@BradfordWorldwide
From: Casimir@HouseofMarinello


Anna Maria and Troy, good morning. When we have our quarterly meeting next week, I have been deputized by my sisters and father to bring the muslins for Anna Maria to try on. After a great deal of argument, I’ve forced them to allow me to do the fittings, so we won’t all descend on your offices to overwhelm you. I’ll need a two-hour block of time and Anna Maria will want privacy for this event; I assume Troy’s presence will be chaperone enough. Can this be arranged?


To: AMCapelli@BradfordWorldwide
From: TDonovan@BradfordWorldwide


Kitten, what’s he talking about?


To: TDonovan@BradfordWorldwide
From: AMCapelli@BradfordWorldwide


Troy, designers don’t just make couture gowns right off the bat. First they make the entire garment in a base material—like a cotton muslin—which they fit onto the model. They’ll only create the actual garment once the muslin fits perfectly. DO NOT let on to Casimir that you don’t understand this about the fashion world.

I would be grateful if you would be "busy" during the fittings. Sunshine will be my chaperone. You can tell Casimir it’s bad luck to see the bride in her wedding gown before the day. 


To: Casimir@HouseofMarinello, MatteoMaestro@HouseofMarinello
CC: TDonovan@BradfordWorldwide, AMCapelli@Bradfordworldwide
From: NBradford@BradfordWorldwide


Matteo and Casimir, greetings!

Bradford Worldwide would be delighted to host all the Marinello designers for the fitting of our own precious Anne Marie! Why don’t you bring the whole family? We’re all eager to see the muslims as she tries them on, and then we’d like to have a party in our offices afterwards, to celebrate the upcoming wedding and the Three Jewels account! The sky’s the limit!

Look forward to seeing you all very soon!

Nicholson Bradford, President and Owner


To: ShoeJunkie@gmail
From: Casimir@gmail


Did your boss just get your name wrong? And did he say he was looking forward to seeing you try on Muslims??


To: Casimir@gmail
From: ShoeJunkie@gmail


Have pity. He’s a guy.


To: ShoeJunkie@gmail
From: Casimir@gmail


I’M a guy. He’s an idiot.


To: NBradford@BradfordWorldwide
CC: AMCapelli@BradfordWorldwide, TDonovan@BradfordWorldwide
From: Casimir@HouseofMarinello


Nicholson, my father has asked me to extend his thanks for your generous invitation. However, as you know, we are prepping for the Spring fashion shows in Paris, so we are unable to attend either the fittings or the celebration in your offices. As planned previously, I will be attending the quarterly meeting as usual. But this time, I will come with a trunk full of carefully-wrapped muslins. I will also be attending with a very serious and very ancient seamstress named Magda, who is the only person on the planet that my sisters and father can agree is an acceptable substitute for them doing their own fittings. My skills have been called into question. I have been put in my place and hang my head in shame. We will arrange all details for Magda; not to worry.

See you next week.


WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? YOU DECIDE:

A. Anna Maria realizes she needs the right lingerie for the dress fittings; she informs Nicholson that he’s now going to pay for a shopping spree to La Perla, which he says he wants to attend. Absolutely not.

B. Troy crashes the dress fittings, which throws a wrench into the warm-happy vibe between Casimir and Anna Maria. Still—if she’s trying on wedding dresses to marry another man, how happy can her conversation with Casimir be?

C. Amy is thrilled to learn that Casimir can faintly hear his spirit guide; she looks forward to the dress fittings not just to see Antonio again but also to work with him on boosting Casimir’s receptivity to Antonio. Just how much does Casimir suspect?

OR SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE.  You have until Sunday evening, September 18 to vote—although please note: I don’t actually write these until Wednesday or Thursday, so feel free to send late votes if you want! I’ll send you the next installment on September 23.

Next chapter coming up soon!

You Decide #1.0: