I smooth my hands down my pencil skirt and gray tailored, jacket before touching up my dark lipstick in the hall mirror with a look of resignation. My eyes scan and check my tawny hair is neat and sleek in its high bun and I scrutinize my reflection again, to make sure it's precise. Sighing once more, I take a steadying breath trying to ready myself, pushing down the gnawing ache of anxiety and nerves deep inside my gut.
I look as good as I know I'm capable of, and I'm mildly satisfied with what I see before me; a cool, efficient image of cold poise and gray tailoring that exudes authority, with no hint of the turmoil of emotion inside me. I narrow my eyes to look for any flaws to my immaculate armor, any stray hairs, specks of dust, or creased fabric, and find none.
I've never been a lover of my own reflection, with my young appearance, cool blue eyes, and pouting lips, but nothing is out of place and I look right for my new role as personal assistant to my very high-profile boss. Professional and capable on the outside which I guess is what matters, calm and uncompromising with every detail in place and clothes flawlessly neat. I have always been good at shielding the truth about how I feel inside.
I slide on my stilettos with a slow careful motion, keeping my balance with one hand on the wall and hearing the movement in the room behind me, I check the mirror in response.
"Morning, Ems … God, you look professional as always." Sarah stifles a yawn as she wanders from her room and rubs her eyes with the back of her fist childishly as I watch her in the reflection behind me. It's unusual for her to be up this early on her day off; Sarah's never been a lover of mornings for as long as I've known her.
She's wearing her baggy pink housecoat, and her messy, short, bleached blonde hair is sticking up at all angles from her head; casually loveable as always, and I am warmed with affection for that bundle of happy energy. Her bright blue eyes are heavy with early morning fatigue and she's watching me closely with a silly smile on her face. A little too closely for my liking.
"Good morning, Sarah." I smile lightly, I try to ignore the way she's looking at me and straighten up to stand tall. I turn, lifting my briefcase from the floor in front of me and head forward into our open plan apartment. Ever conscious of my grace and mannerisms under scrutiny, even in front of her, and push out the sense of tightness in my nerves today; swallow down the listlessness and try extremely hard to curb the swirling of my stomach.
"Remember you need to be here for ten o'clock … the boiler repair." I remind her as she shuffles along behind me to the living room area, trying to distract her from the open gawking she seems to be doing. Running through my schedule in my head like a mental checklist to give me something else to think about, besides my uneasiness today.
"I know. I know! You left me a memo on the fridge remember?" she giggles childishly and throws me a patient look, raising a brow with an almost indulgent expression. She looks much younger than her age and sometimes I forget we went to school together. I'm more like her guardian than her roommate nowadays, but maybe I always did, if I am being honest. I sigh again, pushing down the tight knot of apprehension growing inside and give her a small smile of bravado.
"Don't forget." I sound stern, but she doesn't react, she's used to my serious tone and my endless organization of our lives. She knows this is the way I do things; my need to be in control and have everything just so makes me feel more capable.
"I won't. I swear … I'm not working until tonight, so I'm going to stick around and chillax … Watch some back-to-back Netflix." She moves lazily in the bright white and gray kitchen to the side of me and begins making herself a coffee. Lifting the mug I washed earlier this morning from the rack for herself, with another sleepy bright smile. I watch her casual, confident movements around the space; her domain when she's at home, and it gives me a sense of calm.
Sarah was always good at making me feel a little saner when I needed it, never aware of how I drew from that uncomplicated relaxed manner of hers when I had to ground myself.
"I'm going to work." I walk steadily into the small hall by the side of the bar which juts out into the lounge and lift the few open letters from the counter I've yet to deal with today. I know that I'm lingering and acting indecisively, compared to my usual efficient routine every day, and normally I'd already be walking to the subway station, despite being early.
"Oh, here." She slides a white envelope out from behind the toaster and holds it out expectantly for me to take, a blank look on her face.
"Before I forget … I know you've probably already taken care of them, as usual." Her sparkling eyes flash at me with affectionate amusement.
"What is it?" I look at the long envelope, taking it from her slowly with careful fingers, eyeing it up with a frown, seeing no writing on the front.
"My half of the utilities and the rent … I got paid early." She smiles brightly and sets about going back to making herself coffee, pulling a loaf of bread open to slide slices into the toaster.
"Right, and yes. I've taken care of it already … Thank you." I take it and slide it into my bag to bank at lunch and mentally note down a memo to do so. I ritually pay our bills at the start of every month when I'm paid, having a very good wage in a great company with many perks makes it effortless to make sure we are always up to date.
"No surprise there then," she mumbles and throws me another affectionate look, all cute eyes, and gentle sighs as she regards me from a sideways look that I clearly catch. I just shake my head at her, fully aware that she prefers that I take control of our living expenses and always have. She's never been good with money and I doubt she would remember to pay the rent on time without my ever-efficient presence to do so. Taking care of things is how I like it to be; it gives me purpose, control, and a focus in my life that I so desperately need to thrive.
"I won't be home until six o'clock, Sarah. I presume you'll be at work by then, so have a wonderful day." I turn from the breakfast bar and head for the main door of our apartment, lifting my warm jacket as I pass the dining table and turn with a smile when I reach the dark slate door.
"Oh, wait … Good luck on meeting your super-hot boss for the first time, Miss. Anderson!" She beams at me excitedly, raising her eyebrows; leaning out across the worktop so all I can see is her head popping out from the kitchen at a funny angle. She looks messy but cute and far too awake for her today. I smile back emptily, not wanting to give my feelings away or show any weakness.
"Thanks." My face heats slightly with the rise of nerves hitting my stomach hard again but ignore the sensation, swallowing it all down with the expertise of a seasoned actress.
"Are you nervous?" she probes with a little furrow of her brow, still leaning out a little too far to watch me adjust my briefcase handle and pull my outside jacket on over my suit. I frown back at her question, the tightening knot in my stomach intensifying somewhat but I shake my head with a "No" in reply. If I admit it to her then I admit it to myself, then I'll let my nerves get the better of me and lose my edge.
That just wouldn't do at all.
"Of course, you're not … You never are!" she adds quickly with a grin and slides back into her little culinary world, oblivious to anything amiss in my behavior today. I smile again as I watch her recede and turn with a wave of my fingertips before heading out the door on my mission to get to work.
So sure of my capabilities and cool, outward confidence.
I sometimes wonder if she even remembers the old me at all. If she even associates me with the girl I was when we met, so many years ago?
I close the door behind me quietly, holding onto the handle for a second as I take a deep steadying breath and take a moment to be still. Refusing to let emotion get the better of me and crack my armor. Looking down at the cool silver knob as a way of calming myself once more, steadying that creep of inner nerves and pushing down all my anxiety and fears.
I can do this.
It's what I've been working so hard for; finally, my abilities recognized after years of hard work and climbing the internal ladder. I need to push down the inner doubts and the final traces of my adolescent Emma, to focus on the tasks ahead of me. The responsibilities I'll be taking on after today. It's heady and overwhelming, but I steel my nerves inwardly, still my hands against me as I've practiced a million times in the last ten years. Everyday working toward this person I've become; this cool and confident persona known as Emma Anderson.
It takes a moment to be able to walk from the door, but as I do, the armor sliding up and the mask fully connecting with my face. Each step strengthening my resolve, back to my normal practiced demeanor and that inner me finding the will power and steady strength to pull this off, day after day. I head to the subway station.
* * *
Floor sixty-five of the Carrero corporation—Executive house. Lexington Avenue, Mid-town Manhattan.
My hands are clammy and heated and my heart's pounding so hard I may throw up. It's grating on me that I'm unable to reel it all back in so easily now I'm here. I've been watching the hands on the clock move very slowly for the last few minutes and all I can hear is the sound of my own blood rushing to my ears. I'm sensitive to every noise and movement around me in the stark modern office, and the fact the shiny new keyboard in front of me is gazing back expectantly. I've not even begun to start working.
This is so unlike me.
I've taken twelve deep breaths in a row, yet my hands are still shaking, I feel like at any moment, I may pass out. I'm disappointed at myself for letting my nerves get the better of me and I'm trying to pull back every single emotion one at a time, to stow into that neat box in my head.
Don't fall apart, Emma.
I chide myself and check my reflection again in the glass opposite me that serves as a wall to the office, to make sure I'm not betraying anything. I look self-sufficient, calm, and in control, despite my inner turmoil. As I always do. No hint of the conflict going on behind the cool blue eyes or sleek, smooth tawny hair. Years of practice giving me this uncanny ability to act my way through life, making sure no one ever got to see the turbulence below the surface of my calm waters. I will never let them again.
"Emma?" Margaret Drake's voice echoes toward me as the clip clop of her stilettos comes at me across the white marble floor from her internal office. She looks unflustered and ever graceful in a tailored, black pant suit and high shiny heels.
"Yes, Mrs. Drake?" I stand, unsure if I'm meant to. Suddenly nervous and shy of this woman who has been letting me shadow her for over a week. She seems very professional today. An air of purpose, and I steady my hands on the hem at my waist and fix the obligatory smile on my face with grace.
"Mr. Carrero will be arriving shortly, make sure there's fresh water with ice on his desk and clean glasses." She smiles encouragingly, possibly sensing my unease.
"Have the espresso machine on and ready in case he asks for one, and all his mail and messages laid out on his desk before he arrives. When he does, please keep out of his way until I call you for introductions." She pats my shoulder gently, a mannerism I've grown accustomed to, and with a bright wide smile.
"Yes, Mrs. Drake." I nod, trying not to still feel in awe at the swirl of platinum blonde hair effortlessly held on top of her head, or the severe tailored jacket revealing a curvaceous physique. When I met her a few days ago I had been floored by her physical appearance. My previous mentor had informed me she was in her fifties and Mr. Carrero's personal assistant, and I guess I expected someone colder and dragon-like, considering her key role in the business. Not this designer-clad cool temple before me, with breathtaking beauty and natural friendliness, who is now my mentor. Margo Drake is an incredibly beautiful and intelligent creature that I can only look up to.
"Oh, and, Emma?" she pauses, turning slightly.
"Yes, Mrs. Drake?"
"This week you'll meet with Donna Moore, she's Mr. Carrero's personal shopper and she'll fit you out with appropriate work attire. Anything you'll need when representing him when you go on trips and such; events and all that red-carpet crap he's so fond of." She smiles warmly with a little sigh and a raised brow, suggesting she doesn't approve of his public affairs.
I swallow, deliberately quelling the nerves once again. I am aware that my role requires me to be available on short notice for trips and functions, but I was never informed it would include the public side of him at all.
"Yes, Mrs. Drake," I say, trying to work out how much I'll have to spend to be red carpet ready, worried it may eat into my savings a tad more than I expected. A lot more than expected.
"It goes on company expenses, Emma. Mr. Carrero expects his personal staff to look a certain way." She winks at me, "He considers it a necessary expense for all employees on the sixty-fifth floor." Mrs. Drake has this uncanny ability to read everyone's mind. I like her ability, it removes awkward misunderstandings and nervous hesitations, no second guessing, and I find I work well with her because of it. I inwardly sigh with relief at the thought that this won't affect my savings or my future hopes of one day buying myself an apartment in New York to cut my travel time.
"Thank you, Mrs. Drake." I nod her way as she moves to walk off.
"Emma?" she turns her head back to me with a half-smile.
"Please," she interrupts.
"It's Margaret … Margo … From now on! Only my children's friends call me Mrs. Drake. You've been here over a week and I'm more than happy with your progress. We're going to be working closely—so please." She gives me a full warm smile before turning on her expensive high heel, back toward the huge door of her own office.
I'm warmer, calmer. I'm getting the strong impression Margo has taken a liking to me in my time here. I'm not sure I like the casual first name suggestion though, I like to keep things as professional and impersonal as possible. I'm good at keeping people at a distance and I happen to prefer it. Letting people cross the line from business to pleasure is a messy mistake that I never, ever let happen.
I absent-mindedly glance back at the monitor of my computer, the company logo swirling in front of me as a screen saver. "Carrero Corporation". As if I would ever forget where I worked. Surrounded by opulent settings and posters and prints of the Carrero products and ads on every possible surface. That familiar gold hexagon logo with a black C, shining back on everything.
Mr. Carrero comes to mind. Mr. Jacob Carrero.
Yet, I have only seen pictures of him and he's the main reason I feel sick with nerves. Men with wealth, power, and good looks make me uneasy. They're a different breed and harder to predict. They see women as a commodity and are far more dangerous than average men.
If I'm being truthful, then men in general make me uneasy, but my experiences with average men have taught me how to handle myself. Jacob Carrero is by no means average.
He's been away taking personal time since before I was sent up here to replace my predecessor; she's on maternity leave with a view to not returning and I'm who they recommended as a replacement.
Carrero is everything you want in a playboy billionaire. He's handsome in an ungodly, devastating way, confident, and publicly popular among the female population. He has an Italian meets American look about him, inherited from his parents. His mother has the same mixed look, and he's one of New York's richest heirs. The Carrero family are almost like royalty and he is the eldest of their two princes, who have grown up very publicly. He's been gracing the social news pages for years, always charming the cameras that seek him out, and always smiling in just about every picture they have caught him in.
I've done extensive research to prepare myself for working alongside him, but it makes me uneasy, despite not meeting him yet. I'm aware that he's incredibly attractive, even to someone like me who finds most men intolerable. He has a reputation for being a bad boy, thanks to a large chunk of his early adult years being steeped in scandal at his wild behavior.
He seems to revel in partying and playing in the public eye, bringing no end of shame to the Carrero name, until recent years. Since then he seems to have grown up a little, focusing on the family business, yet still finding time to string along endless women in his wake and make appearances at glitzy events. He is a completely stereotypical, playboy billionaire, and boringly predictable.
I know from pictures that he has the darkest brown almost black hair and green eyes, although I'm sure Photoshop has something on the sheer brightness of the color. No eye color could be that breathtaking in real life, and I know how magazines like to air brush good looks into every image. He sports a rough, stubbly beard, with a cropped, messy haircut that suits his age. Usually styled fashionably, most likely with one of the expensive Carrero grooming products his face has graced in the most recent years. It is obvious he loves himself enough to put his face on their million-dollar ad campaigns every year.
He's twenty-eight and despite having worldly maturity about him, he looks younger than his age when you see pictures straight on and caught off guard. I can't deny that I see the appeal. He seems to have the body of someone who is graced with a good strong, tall physique, and he takes care of it. There are enough topless shots of him in the media to confirm that, and he's not shy about showing it off. He also seems to have a weakness for tribal and Aztec tattoos, which litter his body in a rather complimentary way. He looks like a typical brainless model; too good-looking to be a nice guy and far too muscular to have a decent IQ.
There's no doubt he's been blessed with more sex appeal than necessary for one man, and this is the root of my nausea. He's someone who charms and strings along women effortlessly. Unlike all the men I've ever known, and that makes me distrust him.
I can handle men who leech and grope, whose intent is written on their faces and have cowardly natures. I've never been faced with someone with the capabilities Jacob Carrero seems famed for. The effortless ability to make women swoon at his feet and follow him around doe-eyed and lust sick. The man seems to just click his fingers to find dates and they all scramble to get a go at him. It's pathetic really.
I know it's a huge honor to get this position. I know that I'm good at my job, and I've pleased the right people downstairs to even get here at such an early age, but I feel sick and scared for the hundredth time. I'm doubting myself, despite my achievements; the curse of my self-doubts.
The old Emma still hidden in the shadows, shaking her head at me, and trying to convince me that I am a fraud. I don't know if I've overstepped my worth. I don't know if I'm capable of the task ahead of me. Capable of working with someone so young and as all-encompassing as Jacob Carrero, the celebrity hotel tycoon and New York's most eligible bachelor.
I pull my focus back to task, putting my mind onto doing something manual always helps me get myself together. I do as Margo asked and ready the large expensive espresso machine in the white kitchen. It's small, modern and sleek, if a little clinical, and seems to only be used to supply tea and coffee despite the huge refrigerators. I wipe down the surfaces of the machine and surrounding worktops, removing the dust from the coffee grounds and ready his tray with iced water. Taking some comfort in this calming task. My nerves still rattled, and this irritates me. I thought I had gained more control than this.
I arrange everything she has requested neatly on his desk, straightening things as I go and checking the room to make sure everything is in its place. I like neatness, it makes me calm and feel more in control, as though somehow by everything being orderly, my life is more so.
I smooth down my blouse, now that I've removed my jacket, savoring the silky feel of the expensive pale gray fabric and return with the pile of mail and messages I took for him yesterday. They're only the ones that require his attention and place them on his desk in line with the leather seat sitting neatly behind it.
The office is spacious and airy. One wall of glass and through it, the view of New York at its finest, hindered only by vertical blinds that sit open. Large abstract prints fill the sea of gray expanse to the left. I can't help but let my eyes skim over the silver framed pictures to the left corner of the wooden desk, with various people in black and white stills. Beautiful women, celebrities, and one of his father, Mr. Carrero Sr. Someone I've seen from a distance before, during a huge function last year that required extra staff. They look only vaguely alike in that Italian way, although I know Jacob must look more like his mother, as the resemblance ends there.
In pride of place is a large framed picture of, who I recognize, is his mother. She's very beautiful, and the resemblance is striking. Same dark hair, gorgeous face, cool tan. Same bright green eyes, and yet a gentle warmth in that face.
In comparison, Carrero senior is fairer haired with deep brown eyes and a tight, harsh face, etched with lines as though his skin is weather beaten. In the picture of father and son, there's a coldness between them, despite the fact they're standing close, holding a champagne bottle in front of a ship's stern. It sends a shiver down my spine. I know cold looks on men and the memories are completely unwelcome.
I look around quickly making sure there's nothing else that requires my obsessive attention to detail and slide back out gracefully, assured everything is ready.
It's almost 9.00 a.m.; he will be arriving shortly, and my nerves are so taut I may actually snap with the tension if it isn't over soon.