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Beauty and the Boss

By Ali Vali

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 Ali Vali

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Beauty and the Boss

Ellis Renois is at the top of the fashion world and has built the Renois Company into a success that dominates the runways of the world. Ellis loves creating clothes, and she loves the beautiful women who wear them. While Ellis deals with design, she leaves the business aspect to others. It’s a mistake that could cost her more than just her life’s work.

Charlotte Hamner has worked her way through school and is ready to make a better life for herself and her daughter Sawyer. She’s far from the teenaged mother who worked a string of dead-end jobs to fulfill her dreams, so she’s not about to fall victim to Ellis’s easy charm.

A summer job presents Charlotte with the chance to learn from Ellis, but it might also land her the position of head designer for Renois. But her promotion will come only through betrayal and perhaps at the cost of her heart.

Praise for Ali Vali

Balance of Forces: Toujours Ici


“A stunning addition to the vampire legend, Balance of Forces: Toujour Ici is one that stands apart from the rest.”—Bibliophilic Book Blog

Calling the Dead


“So many writers set stories in New Orleans, but Ali Vali’s mystery novels have the authenticity that only a real Big Easy resident could bring…makes for a classic lesbian murder yarn.”—Curve Magazine

Blue Skies


“Vali is skilled at building sexual tension, and the sex in this novel flies as high as Berkley’s jets. Look for this fast-paced read.”—Just About Write

Carly’s Sound


“Vali paints vivid pictures with her words…Carly’s Sound is a great romance, with some wonderfully hot sex.”—Midwest Book Review

“It’s no surprise that passion is indeed possible a second time around.”—Q Syndicate

Acclaim for the Casey Cain Saga

The Devil Inside


“Vali’s fluid writing style quickly puts the reader at ease, which makes the story and its characters equally easy to get to know and care about. When you find yourself talking out loud to the characters in a book, you know the work is polished and professional, as well as entertaining.”—Family and Friends Magazine

“Not only is The Devil Inside a ripping mystery, it’s also an intimate character study.”—L-Word Literature

The Devil Inside is the first of what promises to be a very exciting series…While telling an exciting story that grips the reader, Vali has also fully fleshed out her heroes and villains. The Devil Inside is that rarity: a fascinating crime novel which includes a tender love story and leaves the reader with a cliffhanger ending.”—MegaScene

The Devil Unleashed


“Fast-paced action scenes, intriguing character revelations, and a refreshing approach to the romance thriller genre all make for an enjoyable reading experience in the Big Easy…The Devil Unleashed is an engrossing reading experience.”—Midwest Book Review

Deal with the Devil


“Ali Vali has given her fans another thick, rich thriller…Deal With the Devil has wonderful love stories, great sex, and an ample supply of humor. It is an exciting, page-turning read that leaves her readers eagerly awaiting the next book in the series.”—Just About Write

The Devil Be Damned

“Ali Vali excels at creating strong, romantic characters along with her fast-paced, sophisticated plots. Her setting, New Orleans, provides just the right blend of immigrants from Mexico, South America, and Cuba, along with a city steeped in traditions.”—Just About Write

Beauty and the Boss

© 2017 By Ali Vali. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13: 978-1-62639-920-4


This Electronic Original is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: September 2017


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Shelley Thrasher

Production Design: Stacia Seaman

Cover Design By Melody Pond

By the Author

Carly’s Sound

Second Season

Calling the Dead

Blue Skies

Love Match

The Dragon Tree Legacy

The Romance Vote

Girls with Guns

Beneath the Waves

Beauty and the Boss


Forces Series

Balance of Forces: Toujours Ici

Battle of Forces: Sera Toujours


The Cain Casey Saga

The Devil Inside

The Devil Unleashed

Deal with the Devil

The Devil Be Damned

The Devil’s Orchard

The Devil’s Due

Acknowledgments

Every story might start with an idea that takes months to write, but no book is done without a great team. Thank you, Radclyffe, for your support from the beginning and for your friendship. Thanks to Sandy Lowe for the title—those are always the hardest, and this one’s perfect.

Thank you to Shelley Thrasher, my editor. As always, you taught me something, and for that I’m always grateful.

Thank you to my fantastic first readers Kim Rieff, Cris Perez-Soria, and Connie Ward. You guys rock and always have great suggestions, so I appreciate the input. It’s nice to know, though, that I can surprise you with a good plot twist.

A big thank you to the BSB team, my fellow authors, and Melody Pond for a great cover. Life at times knocks you flat with surprises you never see coming, so I thank my BSB family for not only helping me get up, but for letting me lean on you. I love you guys.

Thank you to all the readers for your unwavering support and for your many emails. As always, every word is written with you in mind.

It’s amazing how life can change in such a short time and how much pain you can endure without breaking from the weight of so much loss. The only way to survive is to be lucky enough to have friends and someone who loves you shoulder the burden with you. Thank you to my big brother for all the memories and for your unwavering support for all of my fifty-three years. I hope your eternity is only smooth waters, big fish, and a cup that never goes empty.

Thank you, C, for making me laugh when I didn’t think I could, for simply holding my hand when words weren’t necessary or possible, and for thirty-two years full of joy. I love you. Verdad!

For C

A lifetime will never be enough.


For my big brother

Rest easy, brother, and know you are missed.

Chapter One

Fashion designer Ellis Renois used the back door of her main studio in the Garment District, wanting to avoid anyone vying for the summer internship from trying to make an impression before it was their turn. The large open space on the top floor was where her team took her sketches and transformed them into the reality of the runway. She’d always felt alive in here, and she used these interviews to find the person who felt the same way. The only thing was, it had to be someone who would put in the work and not want to just show up for the accolades of Fashion Week.

Her best friend and business partner Rueben Maddox was waiting just inside. “Take the sofa,” he said of the spot they used when they had guests for previews. The space was eerily quiet since the staff was on holiday for a few weeks and would return when she started sending sketches from her own vacation to add to the ones already in the finishing stages. A skeleton crew would follow her out of town, and one of the head seamstresses would fly back and forth to make sure everything stayed on track for the fall.

“It’s not too late to change your mind,” Rueben said.

Ellis was growing tired of this same damn conversation they’d had in the last couple of years. “This will go much faster if you leave out the lecture, Ruby.”

“You can’t blame me for trying.”

“True, but don’t push it by driving it in the ground. You’ll break a nail, or worse yet, you’ll ruin your outfit by breaking a sweat.”

She smiled at Rueben and moved to her assigned seat, stopping to put her hands on her hips when she spotted a kid walking slowly in the back corner of the room. Whoever she was, she was moving her head like she was trying to commit every inch of the space to memory.

“Hold up, Ruby. Hi,” Ellis said, stopping in front of the big leather chesterfield. “Are you here for the internship? Not that I’d turn you down, but you look a little young to be in the workforce.” She unbuttoned her jacket and held her hand out after spotting the book in the girl’s hand. “Let’s see your sketches.”

“How come you don’t think it’s my diary?”

The kid, who appeared barely ten, had moxie, and her slightly long, dark hair falling in her face made Ellis think she was ready for a photo shoot. She sat and patted the spot next to her. “If it’s your diary, you must have a lot of emotion in those pages.”

The kid had a good laugh, but she hesitated before taking a seat. “Why’d you say that?” The girl had obviously thought about joining her and chose to stay on her feet.

“You’ve got an awful lot of colored pencils for the average diary. Can I see, or is it too personal?” She stood and waved the kid to the table against the wall of glass as a way to put her more at ease. The view from here was shit, but the light was phenomenal, so she coped. Staring at something beautiful all day would definitely blow her work-life concentration right out the window. Not that it didn’t anyway.

“How about I go first.” She moved some of the work-related sketchbooks to the side and reached for one from the bottom shelf of the long table, opening it to the first page. “Put your book down,” she said, pointing to the space she’d made. “Or not,” she said when the kid pressed it closer against her chest.

The first sketch in her book was of her and her mother Amis, when she was about the same age as this kid. Back then, Amis had been one of the seamstresses in a place very much like this. They always spent their Sundays, Amis’s only real day off, at the center of some beautiful place, and her mother had done a masterful job of choosing locations that built the artist in her soul one stunning landscape after another.

“This is my mother, Amis,” she said of the sketch she’d done a few years back. The finished product hung over her fireplace at home.

The kid opened her book and handed it over like it was her heart on a plate. “Here,” she said, making eye contact only for a moment.

“I’m Ellis,” she said, placing the sketchbook next to hers. “What’s your name?” She held her hand out where the kid would see it. “How it works is, you tell me your name to introduce yourself, and then you shake my hand firmly but not painfully.”

“I’m Sawyer. My mom wants to meet you.” Sawyer shook her hand a little too long with a slightly sweaty palm, but she didn’t mind since the kid was obviously nervous.

After Sawyer finally let her hand go, Ellis flipped through the pages of really good sketches. Sawyer wasn’t Monet yet, but the raw talent was there. At times, no matter how much the person wanted it, you couldn’t build on faulty ground. Sawyer had the kind of talent that would blossom only under the right care. “How’d you get back here?”

“Everyone out there has like a major case of the willies, so I went exploring. One of the doors led back here.” Sawyer shrugged and still wouldn’t make eye contact. “Did this mess my mom up?”

She finished going through the book. “Did she help you with these?”

“No. She tells me all the time to follow my heart.”

Ellis had to smile when Sawyer rolled her eyes. “Do you know what that means?”

Sawyer cocked her head to the side before shaking it. “Not really, no.”

She flipped through her own sketchbook to the few she’d done when she’d visited Monet’s gardens in France and then opened her book of his work. “These are of the same place.” She pointed between the two. “This is the way he saw it, and this is the way I did. One’s more literal than the other, don’t you think?”

“They’re both nice,” Sawyer said, putting her hands on the table and standing on her toes to see better. “You’re really good.”

“Thank you, and we were both doing what your mom told you, so she’s right about following your heart. Eventually you’ll see how important that is.” She handed the book back, and Sawyer immediately held it against her chest.

“But what’s it really mean?”

“Everyone has their own interpretation, but here’s my take. The world and how we see it is like loving a certain kind of flower over another. I might look at daisies and see weeds, but you might love daisies so you see something beautiful. You don’t want someone telling you how to think about the flowers—you know it’s a completely personal thing. Art’s all about the eye of the person with the brush in their hand, and what you put on the page or canvas is what’s in here,” she said, tapping the side of Sawyer’s head, “and in here,” she said tapping over her heart.

“Thanks…I guess.” Sawyer seemed hesitant to leave.

“You want to hang out here until we’re done?” Sawyer smiled slightly and sat on the stool she’d pointed to and waved Rueben off when he stared at the girl. “Come on, Ruby. Let’s get started. What’s your mom’s name?” she asked Sawyer.

“Charlotte.”

“Should she go first or last?” Ellis asked, immediately putting a stunned almost pained expression on Sawyer’s face.

Actually, Sawyer looked at her as if her answer would totally mess her mother up if she were wrong. “If it was you, would you go first or last?” Sawyer finally said.

“Smart kid,” Rueben said.

“I’d say first,” Ellis said seriously. “First impressions make their mark for either good or bad, so they save time either way.”

* * *

Charlotte Hamner glanced around while massaging her abdomen, trying to relax the crampy ache that was growing since Sawyer hadn’t come back from her exploring. Her daughter’s curiosity made it impossible for her to behave all the time, but she kept her promises, so panic hadn’t set in since Sawyer had sworn she wouldn’t leave the building. She didn’t know where she was at that exact moment, but she was sure Sawyer was still in the building and not kidnapped in the back of a van somewhere.

“Ms. Hamner,” the man who’d introduced himself as Rueben Maddox said, holding the door open. “If you’re ready, Ms. Renois will see you now.”

“Thank you, and I’m sure this will completely torpedo my chances, but if my daughter comes back, could you tell her where I am and that I won’t be long?”

“I’d be happy to, but I think you have nothing to worry about,” Rueben said with a genuinely warm smile.

Charlotte smiled back, even though she had no idea what he was talking about, but she was as thrilled to meet him as she was Ellis Renois. Rueben Maddox knew a lot about what women really wanted in evening wear, if they could actually afford his stuff. She’d copied one of his designs and made her own for an event at school.

“Thanks, but you have to know Sawyer. She’s a free spirit, so I hope she doesn’t get into trouble before we’re booted out of here.” She tried to juggle her bag and portfolio to be able to shake his hand, and Rueben had to take the large sketch case from her. “It’s an honor to meet you, and thank you.”

“It’s an honor to meet you, and you don’t have to worry since Sawyer and I have already met,” he said, pointing to her daughter, who was sitting and sketching in her book at a large table by the windows. “She might be a free spirit, but she’s a polite, well-behaved one.”

Charlotte was somewhat shocked to see Ellis Renois standing behind Sawyer, seemingly giving her pointers as Sawyer drew something. She wasn’t surprised that Sawyer was drawing, but that she was actually smiling was something new. Usually Sawyer was shy around new people, and she was super-secretive about her art with everyone, even though her talent was extraordinary for someone her age. Not even Sawyer’s deadbeat dad Kyle or anyone in his family had ever seen this side of their daughter.

“I’m so sorry,” she said softly, not wanting to break Ellis and Sawyer apart.

“Whatever for?” Rueben said, carrying her bag to where Ellis was standing. “I think the boss is more impressed with Sawyer’s book than that of any candidate we had last year.”

“Ms. Hamner, welcome,” Ellis said after placing her hands on Sawyer’s shoulders. “Keep going, kid,” she said to Sawyer. “Let’s see your stuff.”

“Thanks for inviting me, and I hope we haven’t been a bother,” Charlotte said as she glanced back at Sawyer as she opened her portfolio and grabbed her designs.

“Listening to Sawyer give me advice was no bother.”

Ellis quickly spread Charlotte’s designs out over the table, and both Ellis and Rueben studied them as if they would be tested for every detail when the interview was over. Of the twenty she’d brought, Ellis set five aside and stacked the rest. These showed a casual outfit, two business suits, and two dresses for informal evening wear. All of them were variations of something Ellis had put out during her career but incorporated the minor changes Charlotte would’ve made to appeal to a wider audience.

“I don’t necessarily think you’re mocking me, but you don’t seem to like my stuff either,” Ellis said, still flipping through the other sketches again. This time she set three aside. “No one has ever taken this exact approach, so I’m curious as to why you did.”

“I’d never mock you or anyone, but not everyone is a supermodel, Ms. Renois.” She held up the sketch closest to her and started talking before Ellis fired her without even considering her for the job. “Flaring the skirt on the suit will flatter a wider hip,” she said, pointing to the change and moving on to the next one. “Adding straps and a little length to the dresses will encourage more women to try them, and casual doesn’t mean you can’t accessorize a little.” The outfit now had a wide belt and slits in the three-quarter-length sleeves.

Ellis held up two of her originals. “Tell me about these.”

“My mother and I share a love of vintage clothes, but not everyone loves the hunt, so I tried to design with that in mind.” The dress that resembled some from the forties would’ve been sold in that era as everyday wear, but hers were tighter through the hips and leg, with a slight slit, all in linen. The top wasn’t as buttoned-up modest as the style back then, and she’d done away with the collar. “Most dresses from this period had a blouse-and-skirt look about them, but I moved the buttons from the waist to the hem of the slit to draw your eye to the legs. To highlight the buttons, I’d go with something like an onyx material for the white and bone for the black.”

“These could go from the office to an evening dinner?”

“I’m motivated by what would be a good investment for anyone on a budget. Something like this would be versatile for a number of occasions and could be changed easily with some basic accessories so it wouldn’t appear like you’re wearing the same thing over and over again. I think of it as couture for the everyday woman.”

“What about red?”

“I didn’t think that would be a good choice since that’d be definitely memorable. Red would be good as a once-in-a-while dress, so it’d get more time in the closet instead of wear time.”

“Thanks for coming in,” Ellis said, not asking another thing and handing over all her work.

“Is red your favorite color?” she asked, not believing that color, of all things, would be the reason she wouldn’t be considered.

“You mean you don’t know what my favorite color is? You researched enough to change my designs, but you skimped on something so crucial?” Ellis spoke in a tone that signaled she was done. In that one instant, every moment Charlotte had spent agonizing over this meeting seemed like such a waste. Ellis Renois was tall and incredibly good-looking, but she was kind of an asshole. “Maybe you should’ve considered that and a few other things, Mrs. Hamner.”

“It’s Ms. Hamner, and it shouldn’t matter what your favorite color is. Not everyone looks good in red.”

“Thank you for the lesson in fashion, Ms. Hamner. I don’t know how in the world I’ve gotten along without it this long.”

“Sawyer, get your things.” She zipped up her bag and waited for Sawyer to put her pencils away before leaving without another word. Maybe it wasn’t too late to hire on with someone else, even if all she did the entire summer was sew.

“You should’ve shaken her hand, Mama. She’s big on that,” Sawyer said as they rode the elevator down.

“You’re right. I’ll remember that for next time,” she said, thinking Ellis was lucky she didn’t punch her in the throat for being such an ass.

Chapter Two

“Do you have everything set?” Jennifer Eymard asked Dalton Burton as they had lunch at the Clocktower restaurant. “I haven’t heard from the dragon lady, so I’m curious,” she said, laughing at their nickname for Ellis’s mother Amis.

Once the business had ballooned to the point where Amis couldn’t handle all of the everyday items, Ellis had hired Dalton as a manager to take on part of the workload. He’d helped the Renois House expand to where they now had thousands on the payroll. Once they’d reached that size, Jennifer had become the CFO, at Dalton’s suggestion, and as usual, Ellis agreed, not wanting to be bothered by what she thought was the minutiae of the business.

“I’ve just got to get Ellis to sign the paperwork before she leaves, and no one’s picked up on it yet. You did a good job of burying the most important section in all that legalese,” Dalton said. They needed to get back, but he really wanted to stop at his place to release some of the pressure Jennifer had built up with her foot pressed against his crotch. “She’s hot to get out of town, so this might actually work. We couldn’t have timed this more perfectly.”

“Then get the bill, lover, and let’s do a little celebrating.” Jennifer pressed harder with her foot, making him have to take a deep breath. “I told you this would be easy.”

“Don’t gloat until she signs.”

The waiter rushed away with his card, and he had to push Jennifer off before he came in his pants. That hadn’t happened to him since high school, and he wasn’t about to regress.

“You want me there so you don’t mess this up?” she asked, which instantly turned him off.

Condescending and sarcastic commentary he got plenty of at home. “I think I can handle it since I’ve gotten us this far, haven’t I?”

“Darling, you know I meant for moral support. Of course you’ve done great so far, but we’re so close.” Her tone had become syrupy sweet.

Dalton couldn’t wait for the bill to come so they could get the hell out of there.

“Just take a cab back, and I’ll meet you at the office. No sense in whipping up suspicion now,” Dalton said.

He stared at her when she ran her foot up his leg. “Jennifer, I’ll meet you back at the office.”

“Don’t be mad,” she said with a slight pout.

Fuck, he thought, knowing what the next couple of hours would be like. Jennifer was good in bed. That alone had made his wife repulsive to him now, but she could also be a pain in the ass when she wanted to be. “Like I said, Ellis hasn’t signed it yet, so let’s wait on the party.”

“But you’re mad,” she whined.

“I’m being cautious. There’s a difference. Go ahead and take off.”

He came close to sighing in relief when she stood up but didn’t make that mistake until she was out the door. The moment alone gave him time to reflect on what he was getting ready to do. Ellis and he had been friends for years, and she’d given him the opportunity of a lifetime, but Jennifer had made him want more than Ellis was willing to give. Hell, if Ellis was honest, she’d admit the business wouldn’t be where it was without him, so if she wouldn’t reward him, he’d just take it.

“After tonight I’ll lock you on the hamster wheel of life like you did to me,” he said and tried to calm the nerves that were upsetting his stomach. “It’s my turn to be the top guy.”

* * *

The last candidate was the best flirt in the bunch, and she reminded Ellis of the woman from last summer. It was a shame her designs didn’t match her talent in the come-on arena. “Thank you for coming in. Rueben will be in touch.” The woman took her hand and held it as she looked into her eyes, as if trying to hypnotize her into giving her the job. “Take care now,” she said, prying her hand loose.

It took Rueben ten minutes to get back, giving her enough time to find the original sketches Charlotte Hamner had shown her. Design, she’d learned quickly, was always a compromise, from the original idea to the final product, and that compromise usually came down to one simple thing…money. Only a very few could afford what the final outfit would cost if it was produced with every specification she envisioned initially.

“Have you made up your mind?” Rueben asked when he returned. “Or do you need more time?”

“Considering we’re on a time crunch, and I’m also late for lunch with my mother, it’s now or never. Have you made up your mind?” She held up the sketch of the casual outfit, which wasn’t much different from what Charlotte had showed her, but definitely different than what the final product had turned out to be.

“There’s no way she would’ve had access to that since we never release those until the show and subsequent launch to the market. And even then, we only show the final sketches and not the first draft. That went into production without the belt and the sleeve design. If you remember, the version Ms. Hamner liked couldn’t be brought to market because it would’ve been either too pricey or too cheesy if they downgraded the belt to something other than leather.”

“That doesn’t answer my question,” Ellis said as she returned to the designs.

“She thinks like you, but she hasn’t found her edge yet. Her original designs are good, but they’re missing the ‘it’ factor that would make a woman carry the dress to the register and hand over her credit card.”

“I know that about Ms. Hamner, and she’s closer than you think to the ‘it’ factor. What about the rest of them?” she said as she put the sketches back into the book from a few years back and shelved it. The only book out was for this year’s show, but Ruby had just taken it from the safe. It was complete as far as the initial sketches. They’d spend the next few months finalizing what the crew was already physically putting together, and only then would she make changes to the pages. Art was one thing, but she needed to see something on a woman before she even contemplated redesign.

“Do you really want to waste time talking about the others?” Rueben said as he locked the cabinet that held all her original books. “Or is this about the fact that Charlotte Hamner isn’t going to fall into your bed with a few well-placed moves and pretty words on your part?”

“You don’t know me that well, Ruby. It’s not always about the ass factor. She’s got a kid to consider, so she might not want to uproot her life to follow us home.”

“She’s blond and beautiful, so the ass factor always comes up, my friend. Why not ask her what she’s willing to do about the moving part before you make the decision for her? This one isn’t your typical summer-fling material, and maybe that’s a good thing for you.”

“Don’t push it, Ruby. I’m not in the mood. I like women, and I’m not going to apologize for it.”

“Seriously? Come on. You know I’m right. This has been an unmitigated disaster from the beginning.”

“I think unmitigated is a little extreme, drama queen, and I’m not changing my mind. Just give me a rundown on everything else, and I’ll think about Ms. Hamner. She was the only one in the bunch with a fresh idea.”

“Everything’s packed, and since this was the last thing on your list before we fly out in the morning, we’re ready to go,” Rueben said in a flat tone, never glancing up from his black leather folio.

Ellis was sure Rueben slept, bathed, had sex, and ate without ever putting the damn thing down. It was still in one piece and not in tatters only because Ellis had purchased one with the finest leather she could get. Rueben deserved nothing but the best, since he was her best friend and his designs for the Renois Fashion House were inspirational.

He was talented in design and keeping her life on track, so he was always close by with his folio full of appointments and what he liked to call the blueprint to beauty. She was also sure he had enough ideas folded away in that book to keep them going for the next three years.

“Look, I know this isn’t your thing, but it’s important to me. I refuse to let a few setbacks change my mind about going forward.”

When they’d started together, they’d agreed to always help someone get their start in the business, and nothing would make her stop wanting to find talent. Fashion designers, successful ones anyway, she’d discovered through the years, very seldom liked to share the limelight, but she figured karma would only help if she continued her quest to find new talent and help grow it.

“I’m not lecturing, so stop saying that, but you’ve paid enough dues and kept your promise enough years. Why not skip the intern this time and save yourself a lot of heartache? We’ve got enough to do without having all the problems some of these people come with.” He cut his eyes up at her without lifting his head, as if to see if she’d bite on what he’d been asking for three years in a row.

“Come on, Ruby. Don’t you remember being that baby-faced hopeful looking for one big break?” Their relationship had actually begun earlier than that, since Ellis had been the only one who’d talked to the then-wallflower Rueben.

They’d started small with a loan from Amis, never skimping on quality, which had paid off when they landed two up-and-coming actresses for the Golden Globes. They were surprise winners and had returned to see if they could find Oscar magic with a Renois design. Business had picked up after that and had skyrocketed when they’d landed two of the three dresses the first lady had worn a year after that to the inaugural balls.

“You can’t drag me that far back in time, thank you. God, I was such a dork back then,” Rueben said, snapping the book closed.

Rueben had wanted to stay in the background, which had surprised her, but he’d never been able to shed his Midwestern farm-boy shyness. Then again, most boys from the Midwest didn’t know what taffeta was and why it should be used sparingly, if at all, so that had explained his quiet nature. She loved him enough that she seldom said anything about Rueben’s list of quirks. He didn’t complain, though, when she launched Renois’s Maddox line of evening wear. It was an offshoot of the Renois line, and his creativity had made it a success.

“A dork who owned three hundred and fifty-two scarves,” she said, combing back her dark-brown hair that was longer than she usually kept it.

“Don’t remind me.” He pointed his pen at her. “And I’ll never forgive you for not telling me how much those things upped my dork factor.”

“It was all part of your charm.” She gazed out to the nondescript building next door. This view and the one from her apartment that overlooked Central Park were the only two she saw when she was working. The stories the tabloids loved to print about the women in her life never mentioned her long hours. Granted, she’d had plenty of women, but nowhere near the number the news rags liked to write about. Right now there were no women, plenty of work, and an apathy that was starting to swamp her. She was anxious to get out of town, hoping the change of scenery would get her back in the groove of loving all this again.

New York was the center of the universe when it came to fashion, but she’d never been able to really think in this city. Her mother, Amis, said it was because of her ADHD, but in her own defense, it was hard to concentrate in a city that never really slept. The studio and the apartment she owned off the park at Fifth and East 72nd Street were tastefully decorated, a prime location, and the site of countless parties whenever she was in the city—but it wasn’t home, and it was more of a trophy than anything else. A big bank account, a perfect home, and fame weren’t the basis for happiness, no matter what other people thought.

“And it was your charm that almost wrecked our show this year, so why don’t you think of some other way to pay the universe back for our good fortune? You could donate to badly dressed children maybe,” Rueben suggested.

“Why does the word no unlock the crazy, gouge-your-eyes-out, witch factor in some women?”

Rueben stood next to her and held her hand. It was the same comfort she’d provided him when her intern/entry-level designer from the previous year had caused a scene by stripping naked at her show, screaming obscenities the entire time as she walked the runway.

The hysteria had started when Ellis told her they wouldn’t be sleeping together anymore and she wasn’t getting her own line. Ellis still hadn’t figured out which of the options had caused the childish behavior. No matter. The tantrum had gotten a lot of press, most of it good, so she couldn’t complain. She figured it was the young woman’s perky tits and great ass that the press had fallen in love with that had saved them.

“Isn’t that a rather sexist statement?” Rueben said sarcastically.

“You act like that at times, but I already know the list of what drives you down Main Street of crazy town.”

“Oh yeah, what?”

“Hunger and heat, and add a broken heel or a run in someone’s stocking before going on, and you’ve hit the trifecta. I have yet to make you insane enough to strip in front of a large crowd though.” They both laughed before she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “I promise to behave this year, Ruby, but I’m not breaking our pledge.”

“I want that in writing, preferably in blood, so you’ll remember it when your brain goes to mush when they show you their tits.”

“You’ve got that all wrong.” She stood and grabbed her jacket. “The last thing in the world that happens to me is turning to mush when someone shows me their tits, as you so elegantly put it. Trust me on that. It’s the complete opposite of mush.”

“You’re disgusting and a bit touched in the head.”

“But you love me anyway.” She blew him a kiss on her way out the door.

Chapter Three

“You need to eat more,” Amis Renois said to Ellis before she sat next to her at Carnegie Deli.

“If any model on our payroll heard you say that, they’d hire a hit man to take you out.” Ellis always tried to get a corned-beef sandwich and an order of chopped liver before leaving the city. She kissed her mother’s cheek and took her hand. Aside from Rueben, her mother never held her tongue, even when it was necessary to hurt her feelings by disagreeing, but her brutal honesty had taught Ellis never to fear the truth. It was a blessing in an industry often full of petty, jealous backstabbers.

“You’re one of the only designers who admits to the world a woman has curves and, God forbid, breasts, and the sky has yet to fall.” Amis made the universal hand motion for a woman with both breast and hips as she laughed. “It’s why places like Macy’s and Target, as well as the high-end boutiques, are banging on your door, and you never lack dates on any night of the week. Women love you, chéri, and you make them look good. It’s a powerful combination.”

“I’ll stick to the casual date and making them look good. Any longer than that and my luck runs aground on the rocky shoals of life.”

“I really should’ve limited your reading as a child,” Amis said, laughing again. “Such gloom for so few years on this earth. You need to find someone who makes you see and appreciate the goodness in life. It’s the only way to truly experience its beauty.”

“I have you for that, so my life’s full.”

The waiter set down the assortment of food Amis had ordered and hesitated when he took a long look at Ellis. Damn Ruby and his insistence on putting her picture on their latest marketing campaign. Hoping he’d move on, she said, “Thank you.”

“Kiss Ruby for me when you see him again. The expression on your face whenever anyone does that is priceless.”

“The two of you are a laugh riot. Next time, your picture is going on the campaign, so you can be the center of attention.”

Ellis tried her best to get through at least half of the enormous sandwich, but her appetite didn’t hold out that long. After a few bites of cheesecake she was done and ready to finish her list of errands before she left for home.

“Are you coming down South with us?” Ellis asked as she paid the bill.

“I’ll be there in a few weeks. The dynamic duo is having problems, and I want to oversee their solutions. That should give me plenty of time.”

“What kind of problems?” Ellis smiled at her mother’s nickname for Dalton and Jennifer.

Dalton and Jennifer had been key employees for a time, but Ellis hadn’t anticipated that the people she trusted with her business would become lovers and somewhat secretive. That was one reason she was glad her mother was president and still enjoyed overseeing most of the business end of things. Amis was the only person she truly trusted, and since the contracts Dalton and Jennifer had signed would be expensive to break, Amis was the one person who kept the two in check.

“According to Dalton, the contracts with Saks had some glitches in them,” Amis said. “I went over everything with legal, so I’m not sure what he’s talking about. If this is just more bullshit to waste my time, I hope you’re okay with me firing him the second I find any irregularity on anything remotely fishy. I keep trying to find a cause to cut them both, but they have a talent for slithering along without crossing the line that would get them fired.”

“You get a raise if you find that, and call Josh at Saks and see what the deal is.” Ellis took her mother’s hand and helped her outside. “I’ll see you tonight for dinner.”

“What’s your next stop?”

“I finished the interviews this morning, so I have to make a decision. After that I’m ready to go.”

Amis stared at her but kept her mouth shut.

“What?” Ellis laughed when her mother shook her head but smiled. “I promised Ruby I’d behave, so you can stop worrying.”

“Ah, chéri. You are the most talented person I know, but behaving isn’t in your repertoire of gifts. I have no one to blame but myself, though, so who am I to tell you anything? I taught you that life is a buffet to be enjoyed, but who knew you’d be so drawn only to the dessert section.” Amis kissed both her cheeks and hugged her as if using all her strength. “Try to at least pick one who’ll keep her clothes on during fashion week, hopefully during the show anyway. The rest is up to you.”

Ellis smiled as her mother grabbed both her ears and gently shook her head. “Let me know if you need any help at the office or with Saks.”

“Good luck, and I’ll handle those two, no problem.” Amis kissed her cheeks again. “The most important thing, chéri, is to pick one who’ll make you happy. After all, isn’t that the most any of us can hope for?”

“I’ll try my best, Mama. I’ll try my best.”

* * *

Charlotte pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to forget the blossoming headache the present phone call was causing. “You already flaked out on me this morning, and you haven’t seen Sawyer in three months. If you come get her until I get off tonight, you’ll get the chance to spend time with her.”

“What can I tell you, babe? Boss said to show up or forget about showing up at all.” Kyle Snyder laughed in a way that made Charlotte want the magical power to crawl through the phone connection and strangle him when she reached the other side. “The way you harp about money, you’d think this was a good thing.”

“I don’t harp about money to lavish on myself, Kyle. It’s to help take care of Sawyer. I have to work a double shift tonight and my sitter’s sick. I hate having her sitting there for so long. Do you think your mom could watch Sawyer for a few hours? Once you’re finished at work you can pick her up.” She couldn’t believe the words had come out of her mouth, but desperate times and measures made even the devil look good. She still cursed her sixteen-year-old self for actually believing the bullshit Kyle had been peddling way back then. That she was ever that naive was stunning. “I don’t ask you for much.” And you don’t give much, she thought but didn’t add, on the chance Kyle would actually come through this one time.

“You know Mom loves the brat, but she’s not feeling good.”

That meant she was so hung over she could barely remember Kyle’s sorry ass, much less her granddaughter. Charlotte hung up. Kyle and his entire family were total assholes and losers, but he’d given her one thing she wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. Sawyer was a bright, enthusiastic kid who’d made life a juggling act from the day she was born, but she was the greatest gift the universe had ever given Charlotte. It was like the powers that be had taken a day off from fucking her over to give her a perfect daughter.

Charlotte set her phone aside and didn’t feel the same satisfaction as slamming it down. She didn’t have time to brood about it, so she started walking around the apartment, getting ready for work.

“Mama, you okay?” Sawyer asked as she pulled on Charlotte’s shirttails. She was stretched out on the sofa watching TV, her hair going in all directions. Eight and a half years of trying to tame it had been in vain.

“How’d you like to work with me today?” Charlotte tried her best to make her voice light. “You can bring your books and read or draw.”

“Really, I can?” Sawyer cocked her head back as far as it’d go to look up at her. The crooked smile made Sawyer all that more adorable.

“You bet.”

“Is it my fault you still have to work there? I know you don’t like it,” Sawyer said, following her to the one bedroom they shared.

Their apartment wasn’t great, but you’d never realize that by the monthly rent. The only way to pay for it was the waitress job she didn’t care for at all, yet the hours were flexible. When she was struggling to make it through school, it had been a godsend.

“It’s not your fault, and I’m going to get a much better job, so don’t worry about it.” Charlotte kissed the top of Sawyer’s head and hugged her. “Mrs. Cleaver’s sick, so I’m sorry you’ll be stuck watching me all night. I’ll buy you a burger and a chocolate shake to make up for boring you to death until ten.”

“Make it strawberry, and you can stay late,” Sawyer said with a laugh.

She put on the polyester outfit from hell and carried Sawyer’s bag for her so she could easily hold her hand on the subway. The diner was a block off Times Square and usually packed with tourists and theatergoers, but her boss didn’t mind her bringing Sawyer since she sat and either sketched or read.

“How’d it go?” Serena, her fellow waitress, asked as Charlotte punched in. “If you get the job, is there any chance of free clothes for all your closest friends?”

“Ellis Renois is an ass, so I doubt I’ll be getting more than the five minutes she blessed me with today. As for free clothes, I seriously don’t think even her mother gets that.”

“Sorry,” Serena said as she put her hand on Charlotte’s shoulder. “I know how much you were looking forward to this chance.”

“I guess I’ve got more dues to pay, so do you mind keeping an eye on Sawyer when it gets crazy tonight and pass the word?”

“We’ll keep her in fries and pie,” Serena said, waving over her shoulder as she headed out with a fresh order book.

Six hours later Charlotte was sure that selling herself on the street would be better than this job. The tables she was responsible for had won the prize for the troubled section that night, and it seemed like every other table had sent at least half of their orders back. The only thing all of the rejected food had in common was that it was her fault it was bad.

Charlotte waved and smiled at Sawyer as she headed to the single the hostess had just put by the glass wall. “What can I get you to drink?” she asked, holding her finger up to the people three tables over screaming about wedges of lemon, which made no sense considering they were all drinking lemonade. She had a feeling that this menu peruser would be the next in line to complain, since the menu had a lot on it, but it wasn’t exactly War and Peace. She needed to get going.

“Do you recommend the coffee or the hot chocolate?”

“Somehow, I don’t think you need any more caffeine, so how about a lemonade that may or may not have enough lemon in it?” she said, figuring she didn’t have anything to lose.

“Uh-huh, and would you recommend the burger or the hot dog?” Ellis finally put her oversized menu down completely and smiled at her. “Which do you think would be easier for you to tell me to shove up my—”

“Hey, I thought no such thing.” She pointed at Ellis with her pen.

“If you didn’t, you’re kinder than I would’ve ever been in the same situation.”

“I was hoping more like you’d choke on the burger, even if it is really good.”

“Spunk,” Ellis said and slapped the table with her open palm. “You’ll need plenty of it in life. Do you have a break coming up or something? I’d like to talk to you.”

“I get fifteen minutes in an hour, so I doubt you want to wait that long.” Damn all these people in here and their pettiness tonight. If it was slower she could’ve had one of the girls cover for her, but not in this madhouse.

“I’ve got nothing going on except the need for a good burger cooked medium with mayo, one piece of lettuce, and grilled onions.”

“How about pickles and tomato?”

“Put that on it, and I’ll be happy to send it back like those idiots over there, though I doubt I can get that loud.” Ellis pointed to the man holding up his plate and screaming for Charlotte. “How about some company though?”

“I’m sure one of the girls would love to sit with you, but that’s an invitation to get fired on a night like this, so don’t tempt anyone over here to amuse yourself.”

“Ouch.” Ellis put her hands over her chest as if she’d stabbed her. “I meant the lonely-looking kid in the corner over there.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, blinking rapidly while staring up at the ceiling, trying not to look Ellis in the eye. After a few deep breaths, she left before she could screw up anymore.

She couldn’t have imagined Ellis’s being here, so treating her like shit wasn’t perhaps the way to handle the situation. But it was like she couldn’t help being overly sarcastic. She headed over to the agitated man and listened to his grievance about the lack of crispy fries on his plate, giving her an excuse to head back into the kitchen.

“Is that who I think it is?” Serena asked as she waited for burnt fries.

“She’s here to see me,” she said, biting her bottom lip as to why Ellis was here at all.

“And you’re in the kitchen? Are you insane?”

“I can’t lose this job on the hope she’s here to talk to me about another one.”

“I bought you some time by seating Sawyer with her, since they seemed to know each other, but I’ll check with the others and see if we can give you a few minutes. If I can pull it off, I expect you to get me some new clothes,” Serena said as she slapped her ass. “I don’t care if you have to do a little shoplifting.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

The plate of overdone potatoes seemed to take the irritation out of the guy, so she quickly stopped by every one of her tables, trying to curb any more complaining. When she glanced at Ellis’s table, she noticed how animated Sawyer appeared. Something about Ellis brought that out in her child, since Sawyer tended to live in her head and only interacted so openly with her.

“Your burger isn’t ready yet, but I’ve got a few minutes,” she said, once Serena and one of the other servers waved her over to sit. “Do you mind if I stand so the whole section doesn’t think I’m abandoning ship?”

“I’ll go back,” Sawyer said, but Ellis shook her head.

“What I wanted to talk to you about has to do with both of you, so stay.” Ellis gazed up at her with the same smile Charlotte had seen on numerous buses and billboards. She couldn’t help but question if the expression was genuine. “I’m not sure what you’re thinking about, but you need a better poker face.”

Crap, she yelled in her head as she did her best to relax. “Sorry. That’s my ‘I’m concentrating’ look.”

“It sort of resembles my ‘this person is full of something not good’ face.”

She laughed at Sawyer’s snort and decided to chance every possible tip she had coming by sitting down. “I was thinking of all those billboards and other things you’re on these days.”

“Then your expression makes sense because it’s the same face I make whenever I see one.” Serena set three plates down and put her hand briefly on Ellis’s shoulder.

“Why?” Her first impression of shallow and egotistical might be right, but Ellis had a way of torpedoing holes of doubt into her gut intuition.

“Why what?” Ellis cut her burger into four very equal-appearing pieces and squirted a mound of ketchup in a spot on her plate well away from her fries.

The anal display wasn’t something Charlotte ever associated with any type of artist of Ellis’s success, so it was rather humorous. “Why does being the face of your brand bother you? Ralph Lauren’s done it for years.”

“Does seeing Mr. Lauren with his arms crossed wearing a usually preppy outfit make you want to buy something from his women’s line?” Ellis picked up one of her quarter pieces of burger and finally made eye contact. “And I’m not trying to be sarcastic.”

Charlotte tried to relax her face, again resolved to keep it that way no matter what Ellis said. “Not really, but it makes me think he’s proud of what he does and isn’t afraid to show it.”

Ellis nodded as she took a bite, but her gesture didn’t have the conviction of agreement. “Ms. Hamner, can I ask why you want to work with me?”

“Not to get my face on a bus, but if that’s a serious question—”

“I’m being serious, and it’s something I should’ve asked you earlier.” Ellis went back to eating.

“I think every little girl dreams of working in fashion, or at least I did. It started as that fantasy dream, but eventually it morphed into the only thing I wanted to do. Once that came into focus, I put in the work to try to make it a reality.”

“I started on a different track but arrived at the same place eventually. So now my reality is that I may dress like Ralph, but I love making women look and feel beautiful—all women.”

“So it wasn’t to get your face on a billboard in Times Square?”

“It’s not a bucket-list item, no,” Ellis said with what appeared to her as a mock shiver. “If it ever was, it’s got a check next to it now. If you have time, I’d like to talk to you about a job.”

“Really?” What Ellis had offered was the answer to every prayer she’d ever said, but her head seized with fear.

“I’m sure Rueben went over everything with you, but I want you to be sure. Accepting means you’ll be moving to New Orleans for at least the next couple of months and maybe longer. We’ll take care of the lodging for you and Sawyer, but the days are long. Being absolutely ready for Fashion Week isn’t easy.” Ellis then hunted through the fries as if in search of the perfect one and dragged it through her mound of ketchup before salting it.

There was, she was sure, some reason for her strange eating behavior, but now wasn’t the time to investigate it. “What happens after that?”

“I’m sure you keep up with the gossip, so you might have some clue as to what might happen.” Another hunt through her fries with no choice obviously meant she didn’t see any other worthy potatoes.

“It’s why I’m asking. Leaving is a gamble, and I’m not the only player at the table.”

“Safe and sure never launched anyone’s career, and I’m leaving tomorrow.”

“Sawyer,” she said, and Sawyer left them alone. “Did you wait until the last minute as some kind of sick test?”

“You knew the possibilities going in because Rueben is good at his job, and part of his job is disclosure. He showed all our cards before you came for that interview, and the interviews are flexible to accommodate my schedule. When you’re in the position to hire, feel free to change the rules.” Ellis glanced around the area before pulling out her wallet. “I’ll need an answer tonight.” She placed three hundred dollars and a business card next to her plate. “For all the tips I cost you,” Ellis said before walking out.

“Was that Ellis Renois?” her supervisor asked when she bussed the table and brought the plates back.

“Yeah, and I’m sorry I took a break without asking.”

“Did you get it?”

“She offered, but I didn’t know what to say.” She stuck her hand in her apron and touched the card Ellis had left. The chance had probably passed her by, but she’d wait until she was alone to beat herself up about it.

“You’re a good employee, but I doubt you’ll ever convince anyone to buy anything you design wearing that.” He pulled on her collar before tapping his finger against her temple. “What are you afraid of?”

He didn’t give any advice, so she took a deep breath and took the money and card out. All that was on it was a number and the name of the business. “I’m afraid of losing everything I’ve got, but fear never was the basis for success, I guess.”

She walked outside with Sawyer and called.

“Rueben Maddox. Can I help you?”

“I’m sorry to bother you, Mr. Maddox, but Ms. Renois gave me this number.”

Sawyer held her hand and crossed her fingers with the other.

“Are you joining us, Ms. Hamner?” The question was to the point, but Rueben sounded warm and approachable.

“I am, so I need the where and when.” Those words ripped through her, but instead of gutting her, they made her lighter. “I’ll be there, and thanks for the opportunity.”

“We’re looking forward to it.”

“Please let Ms. Renois know how much I appreciate this.”

“It’s just Rueben and Ellis, and I’ll have a courier drop off everything you’ll need if you give me your address. The return is open-ended, depending on the amount of work to be done, and the hours are long since you’ll find Ellis isn’t your typical nine-to-five worker.” He paused, and she could almost guess that some kind of warning was coming. “Think you can handle that?”


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