Q: How does an octopus feel?
— Laffy Taffy Joke #176
My office looked like a circus tent. All the walls were now covered in garishly bright stripes, the elegant cream-colored armchairs had been replaced by two semi-circular, red velvet sectionals, and Ferrero stood in the center like a ringleader directing the placement of two mannequins and a golden sculpture of a poodle standing on his front paws. A standard poodle.
I took one look and turned to run.
Unfortunately, Ferrero has keen eyesight.
"My muse," he called out.
Shoulders slumped in resignation, I walked into my office to face the disaster.
"Where have you been all morning?" he chided.
Though one never can tell how Ferrero will react, I thought it best not to tell him I had been breaking into my late-fiancé's penthouse to steal a priceless book in retaliation for the loss of a drawer-full of candy.
"Errands," I said dismissively, hoping he would drop the topic, "I am a very busy woman."
He waved both soft hands in front of his face. "No more," he clucked. "From now on you are only my muse. You shall eat, breathe, drink, love the Spring Collection. If I work, you work. If I rest, you rest. We are the same person."
Closing my eyes against his over-the-top display of artistic temperament, I wished this all away like the remnants of a bad dream.
Couldn't we go back, like, five days? Just before I walked through that door with Phelps and my life hurdled out of control. No, that wouldn't be far enough. I'd have to go back at least until before I told Jawbreaker about the NEB in the first place. And before my parents told me they were selling the ancestral home to sail around the world.
"Cherie?" His multi-accented voice invaded my delusional fantasy. "Cherie, we must to work."
Reluctantly opening my eyes, I found the workmen gone, the mannequins standing at either end of my desk, the golden poodle on my desk—where my monitor use to be—and Ferrero reclining on one of the red sofas with a sketchpad in hand.
He looked enthusiastic. Anticipatory. Predatory.
"Alright," I replied hesitantly, "what do you want me to do?"
I crossed to my desk and rummaged around for a sketchpad of my own. And surreptitiously slid the bags of Jolly Ranchers, Cinnamon Bears, and Squirrel Nut Zippers into my lower left drawer. A feisty Zipper dropped to the floor and I knelt under the desk to fetch it.
I had just closed my fingers around the nutty treat when Ferrero said, "First, you must take off your clothes."
"Wha—aaack!" The crown of my skull connected with the solid wood of my desk drawer, sending lightning bolts of pain to every nerve ending I possessed.
"Are you okay?" Ferrero asked, in a suspiciously un-accented voice.
He rushed to my side and tried to help me up but I smacked away his hands.
"What did you just say to me?" I rose to my feet and put some extra distance between us as I rubbed my throbbing head. My left hand tightened into a fist around something solid. I looked down. The Squirrel Nut Zipper.
While Ferrero formulated a response, I unwrapped the prodigal candy and devoured it.
"I only meant," he began, Italian accent firmly in place, "that you should be in something more comfortable than what you have on."
He gestured to my Ralph Lauren Black Label pencil skirt and cashmere turtleneck sweater. I scowled. "I am perfectly comfortable as is, thank you."
"Fine, yes, of course." Ferrero hurried back to the couch and sketchpad. "Only thinking of your comfort, cherie."
"Right," I replied.
With my own sketchpad in hand, I sat down on the opposite couch, facing him across the—I shudder to think—black lacquer coffee table.
"Perhaps we should begin by looking at the sketches I have already completed," he offered. When I showed no sign of leaping across the table to sit next to him, he handed me his sketchpad to study. As I flipped through the collection of elegant line drawings, he continued. "These are only rough drafts, of course, but you will see the direction this collection will take."
Every one of the rail thin figures had shoulder-length light brown hair. And green-and-gold hazel eyes. And a heart-shaped face.
"When did you do these?" I asked.
"Yesterday," he looked nervously at his perfectly-manicured fingernails, "after the gala. You inspired me."
"Hmmm." I evaluated the sketches of all these beautiful gowns and sophisticated clothing on models with my features and actually blushed. I handed the sketches back across the table. "The collection is beautiful. What can I do?"
"You," he replied with a beaming grin, "can just sit there and look lovely." When that response earned him a scowl, he added, "And design some equally inspired jewelry."
"Alright. If you sketch, I sketch." Pencil at the ready, I smiled. "We are the same person."
Ferrero smiled in return and we both dove into our sketching.
Three hours later I had initial jewelry sketches for several of Ferrero's designs. At four o'clock, Ferrero threw down his pencil and declared the work day over—although, if I had let him have his Italian way, we would have taken a four hour lunch and worked until six.
"Enough of the work day. I need more inspiration." He looked at me with direct intent. "We must dine. You. Me. And your young man. Tonight."
"Franco"—I was getting used to calling him by his first name after three hours of insistence that I do so—"I don't think Phelps will be available on such short notice."
"Nonsense," he returned with a flick of his wrist. "How can he not have time for his young lady love and his favorite designer?"
"First I must rest. We will meet at Charpé"—pronounced Shar Pei, like the dog—"at eight o'clock."
He swept out of the room with a flourish, leaving scattered piles of sketches and fabric swatches everywhere.
Great, I hoped Phelps didn't have other plans.
I dialed him on my cell phone—not willing to examine the state of my social life when a hired escort rates number five on my speed dial—and waited for him to pick up.
"Yo Lyd." He sounded out of breath.
"Is this a bad time?" I asked between his grunts.
My imagination quickly supplied a vivid mental picture of exactly what my timing could have interrupted. Though why a man would answer his phone in the middle of—
"Naw, I'm on the stairmaster. Hold on," he said just before the whirring noise in the background shut off. "What's up?"
"Are you free for dinner tonight?"
"Absolutely," he replied quickly. "When and where?"
I gave him the directions to Charpé. “Be there at 7:30.”
Half an hour earlier than planned, but I figured a guy like Phelps was chronically late.
As I closed my phone to end the call, I caught sight of a cable cozy that disappeared behind a gilded, antiqued armoire that had replaced two of my smaller bookcases. Crossing to the armoire, I flung the upper doors open and found my missing computer.
A whole day without checking email—at least not since leaving home at seven this morning—and I went into sudden withdrawal.
Quickly powering up my desktop, I logged into Outlook and checked my surprisingly few messages. The first was from Jawbreaker.
I have set up a temporary forwarding of the RegionSix@FerreroCouture.com account to Kelly so you won't be bothered with any business duties while working with Ferrero.
If you have time tomorrow, can you meet with Kelly to go over her new duties? She is looking forward to working with you as her mentor.
That explained the sparsity— sparseness— sparsitude— um, small number of emails.
I could have been really upset. Invasion of privacy and delegation of my duties to a KY and all that. But I had actually—surprisingly—enjoyed spending all afternoon designing jewelry rather than crunching numbers and finessing store managers and tracking shipments and preparing presentations.
Putting that note aside in the mental you-win-some-you-lose-some file, I clicked open my personal email.
One email from Dad.
One email from Bethany.
One email from Phelps.
One email from Gavin.
I knew what the last one would be about—three guesses and the first two don't count—so I sent it directly to the trash can. When he was ready to apologize and return the pilfered candy, then we could talk.
I clicked open the email from Dad.
Mom just wanted me to remind you about Saturday.
She also wanted me to find out about this guy you're bringing, but I know when you're ready to talk, you'll talk.
Loves and kisses,
P.S. Bring some of that Peppermint Bark from that hoity toity grocery you like.
Bethany wanted the scoop on the weekend with the hire-a-date. I replied with a quick note that I would call her later.
Now the email from Phelps was unexpected.
Just wanted to say I had fun this weekend. Who knew a bunch of upper crust stiffs could throw such a great bash?
EP? Phelps Elliot? He must have just transposed the letters. In my experience, most men never learned the useful art of typing.
Oh well, I shrugged and shut off the computer, leaving my pondering of the mysterious jungle that is the minds of men to another time. I closed the cabinet doors and rolled the executive chair back behind the desk, the last vestiges of the beauty of what was once my office.
My phone, still sitting on the mahogany surface, blinked blue with the signal of several unchecked voicemails. Certain they were the ones from Gavin that I had ignored that afternoon, I stuffed my phone back into my purse without a second thought. The lovingly protected cover of a first printing of The Federalist Papers stood out against the soft camel leather—camel the color not the animal—of its current home.
Gavin must be suffering knowing that his precious relic was out of the safety of its airtight, UV-blocking, archival velvet-lined case.
Good. He needed to suffer.
I just hoped that scuff on the cover was there when I picked the book up.
Rather than leave the fragile book in my purse to get beat up further, I took it out and set it in the computer cabinet on the shelf above the monitor. It would be safe there. And Gavin would never guess to look there.
Slinging my purse over my shoulder, I headed home to get ready for dinner.
Charpé is the kind of restaurant that puts a lot of stock in atmosphere. Zagat's calls the cuisine Nouveau Chinois, which I took to mean artsy Chinese food, and the décor reflected that premise.
The narrow ground floor lobby was painted bright red, bricks and all, and was about the size of my bedroom. Twin giant white canvases with gold-leafed Chinese characters hung on the two side walls. The only furnishings were the gilded maître d' counter and a long low bench with red cushions along the left wall.
The maître d', a thin Chinese man with straight white teeth and a tendency to lean forward, approached me.
"Can help you, Miss?" he said in heavily accented English.
"Yes, I'm meeting a party—"
"Ah, yes." He smiled and nodded vigorously before I could say which party. "One already here."
I followed him down the steep, narrow staircase to the basement level. Ferrero must have been early.
But as we emerged into the dining area, a warm space with stained cork walls and cozy tables, I saw Phelps already seated at a table for four.
"Here, Miss." The maître d' pulled out the ladderback chair to Phelps' right.
I started to thank him, but Phelps jumped up and took the chair before I could sit.
"I've got it," he said as he guided me into the chair.
The maître d' nodded and slipped silently away.
"You're late," Phelps admonished as he returned to his seat. He tried to scowl, but still smiled. "Thought you might stand me up."
"It's only 7:45."
"You said 7:30."
I couldn't stop the blush that burned my cheeks. "Yeah, well, I thought you—"
"You thought I would be late." He leaned close and whispered, "I'm never late for shoots or beautiful women."
"Phelps, you don't have to—"
"Good evening, my muses," Ferrero boomed, interrupting me before I could explain to Phelps that he didn't need to feign attraction when no one was around.
"Ferrero," Phelps stood and extended his hand, but kept his surprised eyes trained on me, "I had no idea this was a business meeting."
Oops. I guess I had forgotten to mention that Ferrero would be at dinner.
"Not business." Ferrero gave his hand to Phelps like a queen presenting her ring to be kissed. "Such an ugly, uninspiring word. No one shall utter it again in my presence."
Phelps and I exchanged a what's-up-with-the-crazy-artist-guy look, but he sat and I smiled prettily.
"Very well, Franco," I replied. "What shall we talk about?"
Ferrero ignored my question and waved the wine steward over. "We are ready to order," he said, not having looked at a menu. "A bottle of Louis Jadot Beaujolais. A vegetarian Springtime Roll appetizer. Three Sum Dim Da platters. And a black bean ice cream tart."
The wine steward looked like he was trying not to explain that he was not a waiter, but decided Ferrero was an important customer and simply smiled and walked away. I watched as he found our actual waiter and relayed the meal order.
Then, just as I turned back to the men seated on either side of me, a high-pitched, Jersey-accented, female voice shouted, "Frankie?" The voice grew louder as she drew closer. "Frankie Farris?"
A woman, hair teased to unnatural proportions, eyes caked with a rainbow of colors, and legs tightly wrapped in black spandex, walked up to our table as sat down.
"Frankie Farris as I live and breathe, it is you."
Ferrero, his face drained of all color, shook his head vehemently as his mouth gaped open-shut like a beached flounder.
The woman plopped her purse on the table and pulled out a thick billfold full of picture sleeves. After flipping open to a picture, she held it up to Ferrero and thrust it in my and Phelps's faces.
"This was us senior year. At the Boardwalk in Atlantic City." She looked at Ferrero with batting eyelashes. "We were one hot item, eh Frankie?"
Ferrero looked mortified.
"I'm afraid you have mistaken me," he finally said, looking around the restaurant for salvation.
"Frankie, it's me." The woman pointed ten claw-like red fingernails at herself. "Marcy. Marcy Russignola. From Bay Shore High."
Like a trapped animal, Ferrero stared at her with eyes wide and unable to speak.
Now this may not have been incontrovertible as far as evidence goes, but I felt pretty certain that my earlier doubts as to Ferrero's country of origin were well-founded. What a scandal. Franco Ferrero, designer to the stars, was really Frankie Farris from Bay Shore High.
This was the kind of scandal that could ruin a career.
No Hollywood ingénue wants to be dressed by a Jersey native. They want to wear Italian. Or French. Or even British. But not Jersey.
Ferrero was speechless. I was speechless.
Thankfully, Phelps came to the rescue.
"Marcy, so nice to meet you." He stood and took her hand, planting a charming kiss on her frighteningly manicured fingers. "Please, join us for dinner."
Marcy flushed, a little embarrassed herself. "Oh, well, I came with someone," she stammered. She looked across the room at the table she had come from. "My husband. It's our anniversary. thirty-five years."
"Congratulations." Phelps followed her gaze to the table and smiled at the older man sitting alone and waiting. "Don't let us keep you from your celebration. Enjoy your special night."
He kissed her on both cheeks and somehow she headed back to her table without the whole world of scandal erupting around us.
The wine steward arrived and took his time pouring three equal samples, then, after our hearty approval, three full glasses of the sweet red wine. By the time he left, our table had come to an unspoken understanding that Marcy Russignola was not to be discussed.
At one point, when I returned from the ladies' room, I saw Phelps smiling at Ferrero as the wine steward walked away. A few minutes later the steward delivered a bottle of champagne to Marcy and her husband. They raised a toast in our direction.
Marcy might not have to reconcile Frankie Farris with fashion great Franco Ferrero, but I knew I would never be able to forget.
Even if we did continue to pretend that Marcy must have been mistaken and Ferrero's frequent slips in accent were auditory anomalies.
After dinner Phelps insisted on seeing me home.
Even though the restaurant was on the same end of town as his apartment. Even though his apartment was either a very long subway ride or a very pricey cab ride from mine.
No protestations on my part would stop him, so when we stepped out into the night I moved forward to hail a cab.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
I raised one brow in sarcastic surprise, thinking the answer was obvious. "Getting a cab."
Again, obvious. Maybe I was missing something. "So I can get home?"
"I mean why a cab?" He pulled me back onto the sidewalk and out of cab-calling range. "There's a subway stop two blocks away."
"I don't take the subway."
He frowned like I had just recited the Presidents of the United States backwards. Which I can do, by the way.
"It's dirty and dangerous and unreliable," I explained. And then, because he wasn't responding and because I felt the need to defend my opposition to mass transit, I added, "And there are drug dealers and gang-bangers and—"
"Have you ever been on a subway?"
"Come on." Phelps grabbed me by the hand tugged me into a trot down the sidewalk.
He had the same look in his eye as when he pulled up in front of Jawbreaker's on Daffy. I was immediately suspicious.
"Where are we going?"
"On the A Train."