(Missed some? Read chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16.)
Q: Why couldn't the shoes go out and play?
A: They were all tied up.
— Laffy Taffy Joke #126
"Um," I stalled, wishing I had any plausible excuse for saying, "sure."
"Great, I'll be there in ten minutes." Kelly hung up before I could protest. Or disagree. Or agree, even.
As the dial tone buzzed in my ear I felt my head begin to drop. Mere millimeters from slamming my forehead to the table in hopes of knocking myself unconscious, or at the very least necessitating stitches—either instance would result in an undeniable reason for sending Kelly away—I caught sight of the field of fuzzy pastel hearts covering my pajamas.
"Dubble Bubble damn!"
Lurching off the stool, I dashed into the bedroom to change into something moderately more presentable. I was just slipping my pantyhose-clad feet into my Ferragamos when the doorbell buzzed.
Two and a half minutes later, I opened the door, tasteful makeup hastily applied and hair twisted up into a butterfly clip to hide the fact that I couldn't find my brush.
"Wow, you look fabulous," Kelly exclaimed as she burst into my apartment like an overfilled balloon. "You'd never catch me looking so glam on a home day."
Ha, I snorted—unintentionally out loud—and earned a scowl from Kelly.
"No, really," she asserted. "It's sweats and slippers for me. Every day, if I could."
One glance at her head-to-toe designerwear and I knew this KY had never seen the pilly side of a sweatshirt. Since the day they started at Ferrero, all three KYs dressed impeccably. The only exception was the night Kathryn showed up in emotional distress, but that was a definite once-an-eon occurrence.
"Yeah, I'm sure you snuggle up in your DKNY workout suit on chilly nights." My tone came out a lot more snippier than I intended. Rather than apologize, I got to the point. "What’s so urgent?"
She looked taken aback by my abrupt change of subject. But, like any determined KY, she refused to be deterred.
"I think you have the wrong idea about me, Lydia."
What idea was that? That she was a career- and social-climbing siren set on stealing my job and my fiancé?
Whoa! That came out of nowhere.
Well, not nowhere exactly. The woman did currently have my job. In a manner of speaking. But the second part? First of all, Gavin was no longer my fiancé. In any manner. And second of all, what did I care if she stole him—not that someone can steal something that doesn't belong to you.
"I'm sorry Kelly, I'm just a little strung out at the moment."
Leading the way into the living area, I headed for the buffet cabinet and plucked the lid off the antique soup tureen that had belonged to great-great-great-great-grandma Vanderwalk. A sea of gummy bears smiled up at me.
"Gummy bear?" I offered, ladling out a handful into my palm.
"No... thank you." Kelly looked a little frightened.
As I glanced down at my fistful, I was a little frightened, too. Just to prove I was not some insane candy freak—accuracy aside—I poured half of the gummies back into the tureen. And slammed the lid back on before I could retrieve them.
For a second, I thought I heard the tiny, high-pitched screams of a hundred little voices.
Was halucination one of the signs of addiction?
I closed my eyes and tried to remember the addiction checklist from that recovery book Mom gave me last Christmas. One was denial and there was concealment. Oooh, yeah, personification was number seven.
Turning off my inner voices, I lifted the lid once more and dropped the rest of the bears back inside.
When I turned back around, Kelly was eying me like you eye the crazy person walking down the street talking to himself. A little wary and a lot concerned.
I crossed to the chofa and sat as if nothing bizarre had just happened.
Kelly snapped out of her deer-in-headlights stare and lowered herself onto the couch, perching on the edge of the cushion and clearly ready to get back to business.
"I know we never have gotten on real well." She set her briefcase on the floor and leaned forward, forcing a conversational intimacy I had no interest in sharing. "I just want to tell you that I—"
"Can we just get on with what you came for?" I cut in.
What was wrong with me? It couldn’t be just gummy bear withdrawal. And it couldn’t be about the job, because I’d already decided to quit. That only left—
No. It must be gummy withdrawal.
I was so not jealous of her relationship with Gavin.
She looked taken aback, but quickly recovered her composure. "Yes. Of course. I had a few questions about the numbers from the Bay Area campaign."
As I looked over the papers she handed to me, I realized that she had caught a couple of errors. Not significant, career-breaking errors, but errors nonetheless.
My heart broke.
Why I was so concerned about a job I had already decided to shuck anyway I don't know. Maybe it was just the failure factor. I knew that everyone makes mistakes, especially in such a high stakes, high pressure, fast-paced world. But it still bit that I had screwed up and Kelly had been the one to catch it.
Sitting up straighter in my seat, I knew I had to do the right thing.
"You're right. I miscalculated the overhead. You have a real head for this business," I said, handing the papers back to her. Hard as it was for me to form the words, I made myself add, "You should be doing my job."
And I even did it without cringing.
Her eyes brightened and for a second she looked like she might cry. "That," she gasped, dabbing at the corners of her eyes with her fingers, "was the kindest thing you have ever said to me."
Now it was my turn to be taken aback. Kelly was not the sort of girl who made it through life without being praised at every turn. She was beautiful, stylish, obviously intelligent, and must be regularly swamped with compliments. She didn’t need mine on top of all that.
"Well, I'm sure—"
"No." She stopped me, refocusing her attention and pinning me with an earnest look. "Let me say this. I have not had the easiest life, and I know I don't relate very well with other women. But I've always wanted to be a fashion executive. And from the moment I came on board at Ferrero, you were my role model. I wanted to do everything as smoothly and gracefully as you. And what you just said—well, that's just the greatest thing that you could ever say."
Before I could react, she was out of her seat and next to me on the chofa. Her arms wound around me in what felt alarmingly like a hug.
"Of course, I would never ever want to take your job away from you. Then again, everyone knows you're going to be pro—"
She slapped a hand over her mouth, apparently realizing she was about to say too much. Her eyes widened comically.
"—Oh no! I wasn't supposed to say a word. Not to anyone."
She fell silent.
Funny, but an hour ago that news would have made me the happiest woman in the world. To realize that I was about to achieve the Year Six goal from the master plan. To know that I had overcome the adversity of Jawbreaker's Barnard-bias and the KYs' conniving.
But an hour can make a huge different in a person.
In an hour I had decided to quit the job I had no love for. I had learned that maybe the KYs are more than what they seem. And I had learned that maybe, just maybe, my obsession with candy was more than a harmless fascination.
How could a person's life change so quickly?
"It's okay, Kelly," I soothed, trying to calm that horrified look off her face. "It doesn't matter anyway. When we get back from Milan, I'm quitting."
"No, no, no. You can't quit. Why would you quit?"
"To finally do something I love." It sounded like the simplest answer in the world. Maybe it was. "I've never loved the business side of fashion the way you do. I want to design full-time."
Though there was a tinge of sadness in her voice, she congratulated me. "Everyone should get the chance to do something they really love." Her whole person brightened. "And I'm sure Ferrero will use your pieces in every collection. He just raves about your work."
I felt the beginnings of a blush heat my cheeks. "Yes, well, we'll see." I stood, grabbed her briefcase off the floor, and urged her to her feet. "You'd better get back to work if you want to be ready to do my job in two weeks."
She protested all the way to the door, insisting that she could at least stay to finish our chat. But I wanted to be alone with all the thoughts sloshing around in my head.
Besides, after a year of conflict, I was not quite prepared to bond with KY Kelly. Things can't change that fast.
I got her out into the hall, briefcase in hand, and was just about to shut the door when she shoved her foot in the way.
"Before I go," she panted, struggling against the weight of the door, "I just wanted to tell you that there isn't anything going on with me and Gavin. We're friends, that's all."
I scowled and pushed harder on the door. "Great. Thanks."
"The only woman he ever talks about," she added as the door closed on her flawless face, "is you."
The door clicked shut. Turning, I leaned my whole weight against it, sliding to the floor as my legs gave way.
Gavin talks about me.
As if I needed more life-altering news today.
"Good morning, dear."
Mom's cheerful voice was more pep than I was ready for at five o'clock on a Tuesday morning. Or any morning for that matter.
I mumbled something like mermig, hoping she would accept the slurred greeting, and tried desperately to get back into the dream where I was on a desert island with no one but a devoted cabana boy and an endless supply of Lemon Drops and coconut-scented suntan lotion.
"We're on the boat now. Your father insists we leave right at sunrise." She paused—perhaps noticing that I was not participating. She probably thought I fell back asleep. No such luck. "Lydia, dear, your father and I are setting sail in half an hour. The least you could do is wake up and tell us goodbye."
I bolted up in bed—knocking Dyllie off my chest and onto the floor with a squeak—instantly alert. In my whole life I had never heard Mom speak so sharply. To anyone, let alone me.
"I'm awake," I defended. "Of course I'm awake. You're leaving and I'm saying goodbye."
"Mom," I ventured, "is everything okay? Are you okay?"
"Perfectly. Why wouldn't I be?" She sounded like the same, cheerful, never-upset-unless-she's-worried-about-me mom, but there had been no mistaking the tightness in her voice just seconds earlier. "I was just getting your attention."
For some reason—call it unexplainable daughter's intuition—I knew it was more than that.
I heard a muffled shout in the background about hoisting something and tying off something else. Sounded like Dad was really getting into the sailing thing. If they were about to sail around the world, then I guessed that was a good thing.
"I have to go," Mom stated, her words sounding distracted. "The deck hand just arrived."
If I didn't know better, I'd have thought she was grinding her teeth. That worried me.
"Okay, Mom. Do you want to give me a call before you—"
The drone of a dial tone buzzed in my ear as the call cut off. Mom had hung up on me. Now I knew something was up.
"Have you packed?" Fiona asked, reclining on my couch as I recounted the events of the past few days.
There was a lot to catch up on.
"For Milan? Not yet. We don't leave until Friday." I heard her mm-hmm around the piece of chocolate on her tongue.
When Fi showed up at my door with a 16-piece box of Vosges gourmet truffles I knew she'd had a tough day. Nothing but the roughest of days could induce her to bring out the big guns. And, although chocolate was not my personal favorite—if it's not gummied, sugared, sour, or caramelized, it's not really for me—we shared this indulgence once every black and blue moon.
Selecting a chili pepper truffle from the box, I leaned back into the chofa and bit into the sweet and spicy ball.
"Do you know what you're taking?" she asked when she had absorbed her first truffle.
"Huh-uh. Haven't even thought about it."
Too busy thinking about my life’s drastic change of direction. A change I still hadn't told Fiona about. Not for any particular reason—I just needed to ruminate on it a little more before I sent out the press release.
"Think about it now," she suggested. "Let's have a look at your wardrobe."
Fi was on her feet and heading through my bedroom door before I could answer. Slowly rising, I replaced the lid on the truffles box so Dyllie wouldn't get interested, and followed to my room.
Half my closet was draped across the bed. The half in the back that I was too chicken to wear.
"I am not taking any of that!"
"You have been hiding behind your Ann Taylor's and Liz Claiborne's for too long, sister. You have the perfect body to pull all these off. All you need is a little confidence."
I looked down at my scrawny self. Flat chest. Chicken legs. Protruding collarbone. My body was not perfect for anything. Hence the carefully concealing layers of Ann and Liz.
"These clothes," she added, holding up white eyelet Tocca sundress, "were designed for models with your figure."
"You mean your figure," I countered. Fiona had the perfect body: tall, lean but shapely, full-breasted. I had always envied her that.
And she had the fashion sense to show it all off. Right now she wore a red cashmere v-neck sweater that accentuated and displayed her pushed-up chest and a skintight black pencil skirt that molded her hips into seductive curves.
Only her face didn't fit the package. She looked exasperated that I would even argue this point. Without hesitation she pulled off her sweater, peeled off the skirt and tugged the sundress over her head.
Though we wear the same size, the dress stretched way-too-tight across her hips and chest. Her pushed-up breasts were pushed even more into view, nearly cut in half by the low v-neck of the dress.
"So one dress doesn't fit," I conceded. I held up my gunmetal gray Calvin Klein, knowing it would look better on her. "Try this one."
After struggling out of the tight cotton sundress, Fiona slipped into the slinky number. Like the sundress, this dress stretched tighter across the hips than it should, and her ample breasts pushed out on the panels of the halter top, leaving a gaping view of her bra and abdomen.
"Okay, so two dresses—"
"No," she interrupted, passionate in her argument. "All dresses. There isn't a single dress in my closet that hasn't been professionally altered to fit my figure. I probably spend as much on tailoring as I do on clothes. Maybe more. So trust me when I tell you, these clothes were designed for you."
Shocked, I stared at her like she had sprouted Sour Straws for hair. A candy-haired medusa.
"Really?" I finally ventured when I could speak.
Fi rolled her eyes dramatically before slinking out of the Calvin Klein and pulling her clothes back on. "Not that I would trade figures with you for anything—I happen to enjoy my full C-cups, thank you very much—but yours is the body type gracing all the runways and magazine spreads. So shove your poor body image into the garbage disposal and let's pack you a wowser wardrobe for Milan."
My courage bolstered, I headed for the closet and dug into the way back. "And this," I said, finding the hanger and lifting it off the bar, "is the first thing in."
Holding the strapless minidress up to my chest, I faced Fiona. Every golden bead and sequin sparkled in the bright light of my room.
Her beaming grin said everything.
I hung the dress on the valet hook next to my closet and reached for the silver-gray shoe box on the top shelf. "I even have a pair of killer heels to match."
Beneath the lid were 4-inch gold strappy Versace sandals a la Liz Hurley.
"You wear that outfit around any guy with eyes and you won't be wearing it very long." Fiona grinned when I threw a wad of tissue at her. Which only made her goad me more. "Better wax up that zipper."
I was just about to forget the six-hundred dollar price tag and fling a shoe at her when the buzzer sounded.
And a good thing, too. That was six-hundred per shoe.