(Missed some? Read chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17.)
Q: When can an ant not be an ant?
A: When it's an uncle.
— Laffy Taffy Joke #120
"You may not quit."
Ferrero threw up his arms and marched into my apartment without preamble.
"Won't you come in," I offered to his back.
He whirled around on me as I closed the door. "A muse," he boomed, "cannot quit being a muse."
I sighed. Clearly Kelly had no sense of the sisterhood's bonds of silence. She probably called six people before she even left my building. And, though I doubted she called Ferrero herself, someone—with hip-length platinum hair and a heavy hand with the eyeliner—had shared the news with him.
He looked tired.
Fashion week was always stressful for him, and I had heard there were problems with suppliers and an embargo on a tiny Eastern European country that exported handmade glass beads. Top it off with the news that I was quitting and no wonder he appeared on my doorstep looking haggard and ordering me not to quit.
"Once a muse commits to being a muse," he continued, pacing nervously on my living room rug, "she must be a muse until the artist is no longer inspired by her."
"But I'm no—"
"It is an unwritten agreement. A verbal contract." Stopping in the center of the rug, Ferrero faced me with a determined set to his jaw. "I could sue you."
"Franco!" I shouted, finally getting his attention. "I'm not resigning as muse. Only as sales executive. I'll be your muse as long as you want me."
He was struck frozen for the space of two seconds before his lips spread into a beaming, cosmetically-whitened smile.
A yip from the direction of my bedroom drew my attention to Fiona standing in the doorway. From the scowl on her face I knew she had heard everything—and wondered why she hadn't heard this from me first.
Straightening her spine, she pasted on her own brilliant smile and strode into the room like she owned the place.
"I don't think we've met." She extended a hand to Ferrero. "I'm Fiona, a friend of Lydia's."
Oh yeah, that should clear things up, since Ferrero still didn't know my name. Still, he took her hand, lifting it to press a gentlemanly kiss on her knuckles.
"Miss Vanderwalk is an inspiration. And you," he said, lowering but not releasing her hand, "are a vision."
Fiona smiled politely, but lacking genuine warmth. She was well-versed with the social platitudes of the world of fashion. It was often her job to smooth the feathers of designer and model alike at a show-gone-bad.
"Thank you, Ferrero," she replied, and when he began to correct her she added, "Franco. You are very kind to say so."
Even though I had told her of Ferrero's Jersey "outing" she knew we stilled played the game. Frankie Ferris would stay buried in the annals of the high school yearbook.
Ferrero, adequately bolstered, turned his attention back on me. From the look on his face—one of bleak desperation and abject determination—I had a feeling he was not satisfied with my concession.
Fiona, ever one to read situations with startling clarity, stepped forward. "Actually, I was just about to leave. Lydia," she said, turning to face me and screwing her face into an apologetic-but-leaving-you-anyway look, "I think you have your packing under control."
She said her goodbye to Ferrero—presumably not giving him a similar look—and make quick on her exit out the door.
Leaving me alone with a fuming Ferrero and a whining Dyllie. Unfortunately, Ferrero blocked my path to the bedroom so I had to hope that whatever she needed could wait. And that whatever she needed wouldn't end up as a stain on my bedroom rug.
"Miss Vanderwalk," he began, hands planted on hips and staring me down like a gunfighter, "I will not accept your resignation in any form."
When I started to protest his face softened and he looked more like a concerned father than a fuming boss.
"If you are not happy with the sales position then perhaps we can find something more..." He twirled his index fingers in the air, as if trying to swirl up the right word like he might swirl cotton candy onto a cone. Finally he found the word he was looking for. "...creative."
"But really I—"
"Stop." He quieted me with a wave of his hand. "Do not answer in haste. Think about this offer. You may give me your answer when we return from Milan."
He was serious. And right. No one should dismiss a career opportunity without ample consideration.
"Alright," I agreed. "After Milan."
"Good." Ferrero nodded in approval. Glancing briefly over his shoulder, he smiled broadly and came forward to shake my hand. "And, since it appears your little angel needs to be relieved, I will take my leave."
I peered around him to find Dyllie doing the potty dance, whimpering and tapping her little toenails on the wooden floor of the hall like rapid-fire Pop Rocks. Based on previous calculations, I figured I had about ninety seconds to get her outside before she decided that the chofa seat was as good a spot as any.
"I'll see you out," I threw at Ferrero as I ran to the front door and grabbed the leash. Dyllie dashed for the door, pausing only to wait for the click of the lobster clasp snapping onto her collar.
For a little dog, she sure had a heck-of-a-lotta power in those tiny legs. If the floors of the main hallway hadn't been tile, she probably could have pulled me all the way to the elevator.
As it was, Ferrero and I made our way accompanied by the sliding clicks of doggie toenails and desperate whimpering. The elevator arrived promptly and within moments we were crossing the lobby and onto the sidewalk, searching out the nearest patch of dirt.
Ferrero signaled his driver who immediately emerged from the limo and opened the rear door. Before lowering into the seat, Ferrero called my name. "Lydia," he said when he had my attention, using my first name for the first time, "you are an inspiration to the entire company. I will make whatever concessions I must to keep you. But, if you decide to leave I will help you in any way I can. Sometimes influence is the only thing separating success from failure."
His white head ducked into the car before I could respond.
I stood there, on the sidewalk of 76th Street, long after the limo pulled away and Dyllie began tugging on her leash to go back inside. I wasn't a fool, I knew what Ferrero had just done. By taking away the disadvantages of either option, he had just forced me to make an actual decision.
For good or bad, I had to choose which path I wanted to take. And, as I let Dyllie lead me back through the lobby, I knew that was not going to be an easy decision to make.
Did I really want to start my own jewelry line?
Or did I want to stay on at Ferrero in a more creative capacity?
Dyllie looked up sympathetically when I sighed.
"Well," I asked her, "what would you do?"
Just like a dog. She stuck out her tongue and looked away.
When the buzzing sounded at six a.m. on Friday morning I picked up the phone and groggily told whoever was calling, "I'm packed, really. Just about to get up."
Silence was my first clue. The continued buzzing—coming from the area around the front door—was the second.
"Good&Plenty," I muttered as I stumbled out of bed and hurried to the front door. Pressing the intercom button, I asked, "Hello?"
"Helloooo!!!" Two cheerful voices screeched through the speaker, jolting me out of whatever sleep haze remained.
I jabbed at the door release button, letting Fiona and Bethany in against my better judgment. They sounded much too cheerful for so early in the morning. If I didn't know they both had work today, I'd think they hadn't gone to bed at all last night.
They showed up at my door, laden with shopping bags and Fiona's suitcase-sized make-up case.
"Buongiorno!" Bethany squealed, dropping her shopping bags and flinging her arms around my neck. "Are you ready?"
"For what?" I asked around her tight embrace.
"Italy, silly," Fiona answered. She set her case down on the kitchen counter before adding herself to the hug.
"Yeth. All packed." It was a little difficult to speak through Fiona's fuchsia feather boa.
"Not quite." Bethany eased away, grabbing the shopping bags and holding them into view. "We brought some last-minute extras."
Each girl took me by an arm and led me to the couch, pushing me down until I sat. They moved in front of me, Fiona holding the shopping bags as Bethany prepared to display everything inside.
Under Where was not where I usually shopped for lingerie. I was more of a simple Victoria's Secret girl. Give me a pair of cotton bikinis and a full-coverage bra any day.
The first thing Bethany pulled from the bag looked more like a Barbie dress than underwear for a grown woman. Tiny and turquoise with gold accents; there was no way that was designed to fit an adult.
"La Perla," Bethany announced, tossing the scrap into my lap.
"The very best," Fiona added, eyeing the bit of lace with undisguised envy.
I inspected the g-string thong, shocked to find a tag identifying it as an adult small. The thing barely fit across my hips, let along cover— "Oh no," I announced, "there is no way I'm wearing this. Ever."
Fiona frowned, clearly disappointed.
Bethany, however, looked determined. Digging into the bag again, she pulled out a matching bra. She flung the coordinating scrap at me, admonishing, "Just try it on."
Looking from one friend to the other, I read their unrelenting determination. Reluctantly, I headed for the privacy of my bedroom, chased by the promise that I would like it once I tried it on.
Stepping out of the candy-hearts flannels, I turned the thong around every which way until I finally found what must be the right orientation. As I pulled the undies up into place, I was shocked to realize I didn't feel a thing. No uncomfortable wedgie sensation I'd read about in magazines. I could hardly feel the satin and lace that barely covered parts I'd always left under a solid layer of cotton.
Intrigued, I quickly slipped my arms through the bra straps and reached back to maneuver the hooks into place. Again, it was like I wasn't wearing anything. The straps lay softly against my shoulders without cutting and the lacy cups provided support without the chaste appearance of full-coverage.
Only one test left to pass.
Eyes closed, I crossed to the full length mirror hanging on the back of my closet door, managing to avoid the dresser and the bed without incident. When I felt sure I stood directly in front of my reflection, I opened my eyes and ... marveled.
My first thought was that I looked like an underwear model. Without the ample chest, of course. The color and texture against my bare flesh—an awful lot of bare flesh, to be sure—made my fair skin look as smooth as cream. Rather than simply covered, supported, and protected my body looked—dare I say it—sexy.
Lifting my gaze to smile at myself in the mirror, I noticed that the colors made my eyes glow. I always knew that my hazel eyes changed depending on what I wore, but this was extreme. The three tiny patches of lace turned my plain eyes brilliant turquoise. And the gold accents brought out the golden flecks in the centers.
Nothing could deflate my grin.
"Come on, Lyd," Fiona called from the living room, "what's the verdict?"
I was not about to walk out into the living room virtually naked—even if these were my two best girlfriends out there. Quickly changing back into the jammies, I carefully folded the lingerie and placed it on the bed to be packed.
My grin still intact as I emerged, Fiona and Bethany smiled knowingly at each other.
Bethany stood and handed me the rest of the shopping bags. "Now you know Victoria's secret."
Knowing that you and only you know what goodies lie beneath the business suit or the ball gown. Knowing every guy would be panting at your feet if he only knew. That was the secret.
Bethany was right; now I knew.
"Have I told you guys how much I love you?"
Neither answered, but I found myself at the center of another group hug.
"Okay," Fiona said, her voice sounding suspiciously sniffy, "are you ready for The Extras, Part Two?"
Eyeing the make-up case warily, I had a pretty good idea what they had in mind. An image of Fi's lime green glitter eye shadow popped to mind, but I shoved it aside. Though they might each be outrageous in their own way, there weren't two people I trusted more.
"Do your worst."
Something reminiscent of absolute power glinted in Fiona's eyes. Hoping I hadn't just handed myself over to be Picasso's next project, I let them lead me to a stool at the breakfast bar.
"Just remember, I have to get on a plane with my bosses and my enemies in a few hours."
"Don't worry, you'll put them all to shame," Bethany assured. "He'll be at your feet."
I frowned. Gavin and Elliot would both be on that plane. "Which one?"
Bethany smiled. "Which one do you want?"
Saved from giving Bethany an answer by Fiona's order to close my eyes, I knew I would soon have to answer that question for myself.
"Where are you, Mom?"
The connection to her cell phone crackled and hissed before I finally heard, "Off the coast of South Carolina, dear."
"Wow, you've gotten far in four days." It was hard to picture my parents—especially Mom—roughing it on the high seas. I was glad they had chosen to stay close to land, following the east coast of the United States to the Key West before heading across open ocean to the Caribbean.
"What dear?" she shouted. "I can barely hear you. Hold on, let me plug in the antenna." There were a few moments of silences and the sounds of metal clanking against plastic before she spoke again. "There. Is that better?"
"Sounds fine to me. How is everything on the ship?"
A few moments of silence that could have been satellite delay, but sounded more like hesitation.
"It's not a ship, dear. It's a boat," she finally responded, avoiding my question.
"Fine," I amended. "How is everything on the boat?"
"Fine." Her voice was low and tight. "Everything is just fine."
It sounded like everything was anything but fine. But Mom had a tendency to keep her problems to herself. If she were ready to talk about it, then she would tell me.
"How's the deck hand working out?" I asked. I had been a little surprised and a lot relieved to find out they intended to hire experienced help for the voyage.
Not that I know the first thing about sailing, but I had a feeling there were a lot of things to do and a lot of things that could go wrong. Better they had someone to make sure that didn't happen.
I thought I heard a short growl.
"She's fine, too," Mom bit out a little too sharply for me to believe her. "I'm fine. Your father's fine. The bloody boat is fine. Fine and dandy."
Wow. That sounded like anything but fine.
I was about to probe deeper when I heard a female voice say something in the background about Charleston and deploying fenders. That must have been the deck hand. She sounded competent.
"I have to go, dear. We're docking."
"Alright, I'll call you when I get to Ita—"
The phone clicked and I was talking to dial tone.
For several long moments I just stared at the receiver, uncomprehending. My mom had just hung up on me. Again.
Clearly, everything was not fine.
"Miss Vanderwalk," Howard announced over the intercom, "the limo is here to take you to the airport."
A shiver of excitement tickled up and down my spine. The same shiver I got every time I traveled, but this time it was much, much stronger. Like an iceberg parked itself on my back. There were so many things this trip signified. The start of a new career—whichever one I ended up choosing. Maybe the start of a new relationship—or the renewal of an old one. And in some ways, the start of a whole new me.
"Wow," I breathed to no one but myself.
Bethany had taken Dyllie with her when she left this morning, graciously volunteering to dog-sit for the duration of the trip. Both girls had left me with identical orders to enjoy myself in Italy.
And I didn't think they meant with my sketchpad.
Handle of my Tumi rolling Pullman in hand, I turned and surveyed my apartment one last time. Everything was neat, clean, and put away. Sterile came to mind. Mom always made sure we cleaned before going on a trip so the house would be nothing but welcoming when we returned. Somehow, that had become a mainstay in my life—that everything be sterile so I would never had to face a mess.
Well that had worked out just swell. It seemed like everywhere I turned in my life I faced a mess on top of a mess. Since everything else in my life was changing, this might as well change too.
Marching into the kitchen, I grabbed a glass from the cupboard, filled it with pineapple Fanta, took a single sip and dumped the rest right down the drain. As I set the dirty glass in the sink I smiled.
My life was changing; starting on the inside.
I said goodbye to my apartment—mess and all—from the front door. With a whoosh of the door and a click of the lock I bid farewell to neat and plain Lydia. The woman with a mess in her sink and an MTV-worthy wardrobe in her suitcase was taking over. And about damn time.
But as I waited for the elevator, I looked longingly at the black metal door with gold-toned numbers and matching peephole. All I could picture was that dirty glass and all the ants and roaches it would attract during the next few days.
By the time the elevator finally arrived I had added rats and feral cats to the image. Maybe a girl can't change all her stripes in one day.
My heart pounded and I knew I couldn't do this. Mental Post-It: send Danielle an email about the glass.
Decision made, my pulse calmed down to near normal as I crossed the lobby and emerged into the city night. While Howard and the driver struggled over who would load my suitcase in the trunk, I absorbed the magic of New York at night.
Other parts of town might be crazy with seas of people going clubbing, eating out, or just trying to get somewhere else, but my neighborhood saw only a few couples and families out for an evening stroll. A taxi cab dropped off an elegant looking woman clad in fur and heels across the street. My imagination pictured her knocking on her sweetheart's door, unwrapping her fur to reveal nothing but lingerie and stockings underneath when he answered.
A commotion from the limo drew my attention. The sound of raised voices and the shattering of fine crystal.
Trying to ignore whatever was going on I turned to the driver. "Do you have many more to pick up?"
"No, ma'am," he answered in a heavy Brooklyn accent, "you're the last."
Taking advantage of the driver's distraction, Howard jerked my suitcase out of his gloved hands and carefully set it in the trunk. "There you go, Miss Vanderwalk." He threw the driver a scowl, as if he had been planning on personally destroying my luggage. "All set and ready to go."
"Thank you, Howard. Have a good week."
The driver took my hand and lowered me into the back seat of the limo. Into the fashion world version of Animal House.