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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.

Next chapter coming up soon!

You Decide #1.0: